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Employee monitoring software became the new normal during COVID-19. It seems workers are stuck with it

Many employers say they'll keep the surveillance software switched on — even for office workers.

In early 2020, as offices emptied and employees set up laptops on kitchen tables to work from home, the way managers kept tabs on white-collar workers underwent an abrupt change as well.

Bosses used to counting the number of empty desks, or gauging the volume of keyboard clatter, now had to rely on video calls and tiny green "active" icons in workplace chat programs.

In response, many employers splashed out on sophisticated kinds of spyware to claw back some oversight.

"Employee monitoring software" became the new normal, logging keystrokes and mouse movement, capturing screenshots, tracking location, and even activating webcams and microphones.

At the same time, workers were dreaming up creative new ways to evade the software's all-seeing eye.

Now, as workers return to the office, demand for employee tracking "bossware" remains high, its makers say.

Surveys of employers in white-collar industries show that even returned office workers will be subject to these new tools.

What was introduced in the crisis of the pandemic, as a short-term remedy for lockdowns and working from home (WFH), has quietly become the "new normal" for many Australian workplaces.

A game of cat-and-mouse jiggler

For many workers, the surveillance software came out of nowhere.

The abrupt appearance of spyware in many workplaces can be seen in the sudden popularity of covert devices designed to evade this surveillance.

Before the pandemic, "mouse jigglers" were niche gadgets used by police and security agencies to keep seized computers from logging out and requiring a password to access.

Mouse jigglers for sale on eBay
An array of mouse jigglers for sale on eBay.(Supplied: eBay)

Plugged into a laptop's USB port, the jiggler randomly moves the mouse cursor, faking activity when there's no-one there.

When the pandemic hit, sales boomed among WFH employees.

In the last two years, James Franklin, a young Melbourne software engineer, has mailed 5,000 jigglers to customers all over the country — mostly to employees of "large enterprises", he says.

Often, he's had to upgrade the devices to evade an employers' latest methods of detecting and blocking them.

It's been a game of cat-and-mouse jiggler.

"Unbelievable demand is the best way to describe it," he said.

And mouse jigglers aren't the only trick for evading the software.

In July last year, a Californian mum's video about a WFH hack went viral on TikTok.

Leah told how her computer set her status to "away" whenever she stopped moving her cursor for more than a few seconds, so she had placed a small vibrating device under the mouse.

"It's called a mouse mover … so you can go to the bathroom, free from paranoia."

Others picked up the story and shared their tips, from free downloads of mouse-mimicking software to YouTube videos that are intended to play on a phone screen, with an optical mouse resting on top. The movement of the lines in the video makes the cursor move.

"A lot of people have reached out on TikTok," Leah told the ABC.

"There were a lot of people going, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe I haven't heard of this before, send me the link.'"

Tracking software sales are up — and staying up

On the other side of the world, in New York, EfficientLab makes and sells an employee surveillance software called Controlio that's widely used in Australia.

It has "hundreds" of Australian clients, said sales manager Moath Galeb.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, there was already a lot of companies looking into monitoring software, but it wasn't such an important feature," he said.

"But the pandemic forced many people to work remotely and the companies started to look into employee monitoring software more seriously."

An online dashboard showing active time and productivity score for a worker
Managers can track employees' productivity scores on a realtime dashboard.(Supplied: Controlio)

In Australia, as in other countries, the number of Controlio clients has increased "two or three times" with the pandemic.

This increase was to be expected — but what surprised even Mr Galeb was that demand has remained strong in recent months.

"They're getting these insights into how people get their work done," he said.

The most popular features for employers, he said, track employee "active time" to generate a "productivity score".

Managers view these statistics through an online dashboard.

Advocates say this is a way of looking after employees, rather than spying on them.

Bosses can see who is "working too many hours", Mr Galeb said.

"Depending on the data, or the insights that you receive, you get to build this picture of who is doing more and doing less."

Nothing new for blue-collar workers

But those being monitored are likely to see things a little differently. 

Ultimately, how the software is used depends on what power bosses have over their workers.

For the increasing number of people in insecure, casualised work, these tools appear less than benign.

In an August 2020 submission to a NSW senate committee investigating the impact of technological change on the future of work, the United Workers Union featured the story of a call centre worker who had been working remotely during the pandemic. 

One day, the employer informed the man that monitoring software had detected his apparent absence for a 45-minute period two weeks earlier.

The submission reads:

Unable to remember exactly what he was doing that particular day, the matter was escalated to senior management who demanded to know exactly where he physically was during this time. This 45-minute break in surveillance caused considerable grief and anxiety for the company. A perceived productivity loss of $27 (the worker's hourly rate) resulted in several meetings involving members of upper management, formal letters of correspondence, and a written warning delivered to the worker.

There were many stories like this one, said Lauren Kelly, who wrote the submission.

"The software is sold as a tool of productivity and efficiency, but really it's about surveillance and control," she said.

"I find it very unlikely it would result in management asking somebody to slow down and do less work."

Ms Kelly, who is now a PhD candidate at RMIT with a focus on workplace technologies including surveillance, says tools for tracking an employee's location and activity are nothing new — what has changed in the past two years is the types of workplaces where they are used.

Before the pandemic, it was more for blue-collar workers. Now, it's for white-collar workers too.

"Once it's in, it's in. It doesn't often get uninstalled," she said.

"The tracking software becomes a ubiquitous part of the infrastructure of management."

The 'quid pro quo' of WFH?

More than half of Australian small-to-medium-sized businesses used software to monitor the activity and productivity of employees working remotely, according to a Capterra survey in November 2020.

That's about on par with the United States.

"There's a tendency in Australia to view these workplace trends as really bad in other places like the United States and China," Ms Kelly said.

"But actually, those trends are already here."

A screenshot of a dashboard showing a graph with different emotions
The latest software claims to monitor employee emotions like happiness and sadness.(Supplied: StaffCircle)

In fact, a 2021 survey suggested Australian employers had embraced location-tracking software more warmly than those of any other country.

Every two years, the international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills surveys thousands of its large corporate clients around the world for an ongoing series of reports on the future of work.

In 2021, it found 90 per cent of employers in Australia monitor the location of employees when they work remotely, significantly more than the global average of less than 80 per cent.

Many introduced these tools having found that during lockdown, some employees had relocated interstate or even overseas without asking permission or informing their manager, said Natalie Gaspar, an employment lawyer and partner at Herbert Smith Freehills.

"I had clients of mine saying that they didn't realise that their employees were working in India or Pakistan," she said.

"And that's relevant because there [are] different laws that apply in those different jurisdictions about workers compensation laws, safety laws, all those sorts of things."

She said that, anecdotally, many of her "large corporate" clients planned to keep the employee monitoring software tools — even for office workers.

"I think that's here to stay in large parts."

And she said employees, in general, accepted this elevated level of surveillance as "the cost of flexibility".

"It's the quid pro quo for working from home," she said.

Is it legal?

The short answer is yes, but there are complications.

There's no consistent set of laws operating across jurisdictions in Australia that regulate surveillance of the workplace.

In New South Wales and the ACT, an employer can only install monitoring software on a computer they supply for the purposes of work.

With some exceptions, they must also advise employees they're installing the software and explain what is being monitored 14 days prior to the software being installed or activated.

In NSW, the ACT and Victoria, it's an offence to install an optical or listening device in workplace toilets, bathroom or change rooms.

South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland do not currently have specific workplace surveillance laws in place.

Smile, you're at your laptop

Location tracking software may be the cost of WFH, but what about tools that check whether you're smiling into the phone, or monitor the pace and tone of your voice for depression and fatigue?

These are some of the features being rolled out in the latest generation of monitoring software.

Zoom, for instance, recently introduced a tool that provides sales meeting hosts with a post-meeting transcription and "sentiment analysis".

A screenshot of a sales video with analytics and sentiment analysis
Zoom IQ for Sales offers a breakdown of how the meeting went.(Supplied: Zoom)

Software already on the market trawls email and Slack messages to detect levels of emotion like happiness, anger, disgust, fear or sadness.

The Herbert Smith Freehills 2021 survey found 82 per cent of respondents planned to introduce digital tools to measure employee wellbeing.

A bit under half said they already had processes in place to detect and address wellbeing issues, and these were assisted by technology such as sentiment analysis software.

Often, these technologies are tested in call centres before they're rolled out to other industries, Ms Kelly said.

"Affect monitoring is very controversial and the technology is flawed.

"Some researchers would argue it's simply not possible for AI or any software to truly 'know' what a person is feeling.

"Regardless, there's a market for it and some employers are buying into it."

The movement of the second hand of an analogue wristwatch moves an optical mouse cursor a tiny amount.(Supplied: Reddit)

Back in Melbourne, Mr Franklin remains hopeful that plucky inventors can thwart the spread of bossware.

When companies switched to logging keyboard inputs, someone invented a random keyboard input device.

When managers went a step further and monitored what was happening on employees' screens, a tool appeared that cycled through a prepared list of webpages at regular intervals.

"The sky's the limit when it comes to defeating these systems," he said.

And sometimes the best solutions are low tech.

Recently, an employer found a way to block a worker's mouse jiggler, so he simply taped his mouse to the office fan.

"And it dragged the mouse back and forth.

"Then he went out to lunch."

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Tech’s On-Going Obsession With Virtual Reality


Virtual reality and augmented reality have been steadily evolving for decades, but still haven't lived up to the expectations of many. Here's a look at the current state of VR and AR, and where they're likely to go.

Virtual reality (VR) has been one of the most important technological crazes of modern times. Although the original idea can be traced back to the early '80s, in the last few years we've kept hearing the same question being asked over and over:

"Is THIS the year of VR?"

Because of the inherent limits of our current technologies, VR still struggles to make its breakthrough and become an everyday use product. (Read also: VR/AR Where We Are and Where We Came From.)

Before diving deeper into the topic, let's first take a look at what VR was supposed to be, and what it actually has become, or at least promises to be, instead.

What Is Virtual Reality?

VR equipment consists of headsets and other gadgets used to project a person's virtual image in an artificial world. The general idea is to be able to interact within a virtual reality that is as realistic as possible with objects and other individuals that may also share the same space. In addition to traditional VR goggles, many other items such as gloves and headphones have been added to modern equipment.

Virtual reality seemed to capture public imagination during the '80s and '90s, when movies like "Johnny Mnemonic" and "The Lawnmower Man" fired up a real craze. However, back then, this technology was still very rudimentary and never managed to go beyond unreliable devices such as the infamous Nintendo Power Glove.

Today VR development has come back with devices such as the Oculus Rift, YouTube 360° videos and... well... obviously full-immersive adult movies.

Differences Between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality should not be confused with augmented reality (AR). VR tries to simulate reality through visual and auditory stimulation, while AR just builds on existing reality by enhancing it with digital projections.

AR usually consists of apps and software used on mobile devices to add virtualized elements to the real world. (Read also: Augmented Reality 101.)

Examples of AR include pop-out 3-D emails and text messages, virtual makeup mirrors and apparel color-changing apps. AR can be used to enhance reality by, for example, building physical objects via 3-D printers after they have been "virtualized" from 3-D pictures.

VR offers a believable reconstruction of real-life for entertainment purposes, while AR adds virtual elements to the real world.

Current Status and Future Potentialities

Silicon Valley kept building VR for quite some time, but where is this technology now other than the fleeting entertainment that "Pokemòn Go" provided us with?

Truth be told, much of the current hype about VR technology revolves around a few interesting gadgets. One of the most popular VR headsets is the Oculus Rift, which began as a Kickstarter campaign before Facebook bought it in 2014. Together with the Sony PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive, these devices revolutionized the gaming scenario.

The addition of integrated hardware such as motion-tracked controllers and an extremely immersive experience made these headsets quite popular among gamers. However, the relatively small gaming library and a price that is still far from truly being affordable to the average person are factors that currently prevent these from becoming mainstream.

VR tech is more than just video games, though. According to experts' predictions, in the next 10 years the VR sector will be worth $38 billion. Retailers such as Ikea started their first experiments to let customers view and move about their new appliances or kitchens via a virtual reality headset and controllers. Marks & Spencer launched its first virtual reality showrooms and Volvo designed a virtual driving experience with the Google Cardboard headset.

Will VR Be the Future of Smartphones?

Extremely influential individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg provided some interesting insight on how current smartphone technology seemingly reached a technological impasse. According to his opinion, the competition with Google and Apple is preventing Facebook from developing its full potential in the VR world.

Integration between smartphones and VR can instead be the most probable solution. Programming legends such as John Carmack (the father of "Doom" and "Quake III Arena") are betting on the development of Gear VR, a technology that can make smartphone VR a reality. It's still too early to say whether VR is going to be the solution and the future of social networks as a whole. However, this is definitely the place where Google Glass and Microsoft's HoloLens are looking to.

Possible Medical Applications of VR Technology

One of the latest trends for VR tech is to use it to treat some diseases and conditions. A lot of medical research on its possible applications other than entertainment and media is going on. VR headsets have been used to help phobic patients fight their fears in a controlled environment.

Soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been treated with it since 1997, when Georgia Tech developed the first Virtual Vietnam VR. Other applications include pain management and social cognition training for autistic patients. (Read also: How AI in Healthcare is Identifying Risks and Saving Money. )

Augmented reality, on the other hand, is currently being used for advanced 3-D imaging by surgeons at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Health Care. Physicians can get a better view of patient anatomy that helps them during delicate operations such as valve replacement.

Controversial Aspects

Just like any other groundbreaking discovery, VR technology is not devoid of potentially negative aspects. A quite modern controversy recently arose, since it's almost inevitable that a large portion of VR landscape will focus on the adult entertainment industry.

This world is still seen as a male-dominated one that only recently saw some form of parity in the form of LGBT adult material. A new technology may, however, cause this hardly gained progress to take several steps backward. Larger companies will probably focus on mainstream male-oriented content, forcing niche audiences to be initially crowded out, if not excluded.

Other possible controversies include social isolation and ethical issues (mostly related to video gaming violence). As violence in the form of firefights and armed battles will take place in such a realistic and immersive way, younger or psychologically unstable consumers can be strongly affected. (Read also: Finite State Machine: How it Has Affected Your Gaming for Over 40 Years.)

Whether this influence would be negative or positive is yet unknown, but many developers would have to ensure that the content of a game can still be perceived as different from reality. Striking the right balance between fiction and realism can be hard, however, as the sense of distance that usually provides players with a safety net can be lost.

Final Thoughts

Despite the hype, VR technology is still in its earliest stages of development. However, it definitely is an enfant prodige, and we surely want to be there to witness the moment when this promising invention will finally go beyond its first steps.


  • " data-original-title="Written by">Claudio Buttice
    Published: August 28, 2020 | Last updated: February 17, 2022