Calls grow for action on working from home snooping

working from home2The Information Commissioner’s Office is being urged to tighten up the rules on staff snooping following a surge in new technology designed to keep track on employees working from home, amid claims that digital surveillance is just the “tip of the iceberg” .

The Labour Party has now waded into the row, following calls by trade union bosses for stronger regulation of the technology.

Unions have warned that firms are using coronavirus as a cover to snoop on workers and unfairly punish those deemed to be slacking while they also care for children or sick relatives. One in five companies has admitted that they have either installed the technology to snoop on staff already or are planning to.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic as more people have been forced to work from home. We know many employers are investing in tech to micro-manage workers and automate decisions about who to hire, and who to let go.

‘Staff must be properly consulted on the use of surveillance at work and protected from unfair management by algorithm. As we emerge from this crisis, technology must be used to make working lives better — not to rob people of their dignity.”

Andrew Pakes, research director of union Prospect, said in a statement: “Digital surveillance is just the tip of the iceberg for a new world of creepy tech that some employers are using to check up on their workforce. This technology is being introduced with no consultation with workers and often without even following the limited current rules around data privacy.”

Now shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah MP has backed the calls. She said: “Ministers must urgently provide better regulatory oversight of online surveillance software to ensure people have the right to privacy whether in their workplace or home – which are increasingly one and the same.”

Labour also wants the ICO to update its employment practices code, which has not had a refresh since the Data Protection Act 2018, the UK’s implementation of GDPR, became law.

The previous legislation, the Data Protection Act 1998, gave workers a legal power to ensure they could not be sacked because of “processing by automatic means of personal data… such as, for example, his performance at work… his reliability or conduct”.

However, many claim this has been watered down under GDPR – or UK GDPR as it is now called.

Onwurah said: “The bottom line is that workers should not be digitally monitored without their informed consent, and there should be clear rules, rights and expectations for both businesses and workers.”

Even so, a German data regulator has had no problem using GDPR to fine a technology retailer €10.4m (£9.3m) for keeping its employees under video surveillance for the past two years without a legal basis.

The company, Notebooksbilliger.de AG (trading as NBB), is an online ecommerce portal and retail chain dedicated to selling laptops and other IT supplies.

The State Commissioner for Data Protection (LfD) for the state of Lower Saxony said that in 2018 the company installed a video monitoring system inside its warehouses, salesrooms, and common workspaces for the purpose of preventing and investigating thefts and tracking product movements.

Officials said the video surveillance system was active at all times, and recordings were saved for as long as 60 days in the company’s database. The German regulator found it to be a gross encroachment on the rights of German workers.

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