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The Employer-Surveillance State

Linked by Paul Ciano on November 29, 2018

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Atlantic:

Jason Edward Harrington spent six years working the luggage-screening checkpoint at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. A college graduate and freelance writer, he initially took the job as a stopgap, but found that he enjoyed meeting passengers from all over the world, some of whom showed a real interest in him. But while working for the TSA, Harrington noticed that his bosses were following and video-recording his every move, a practice they said was at least in part for his protection: If, perchance, a traveler’s iPad went missing, the videotapes would prove that Harrington was not to blame. Harrington was on board with that. His problem, he told me, was that supervisors would also view the tapes to search for the slightest infraction—anything from gum chewing to unauthorized trips to the bathroom. Eventually, these intrusions led him to quit. “If they trusted us, respected us, you could really enjoy the job,” Harrington told me. “But they didn’t.”

…electronic surveillance of employees, through technologies including not just video cameras but also monitoring software, has grown rapidly across all industries. Randolph Lewis, a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America, pointed to software that makes it possible for employers to monitor employee facial expressions and tone of voice to gauge their emotional states, such as rage or frustration. Among more conventional surveillance methods, employers can track employees’ website visits and keep tabs on their employees’ keystrokes. Employers can also monitor employees’ personal blogs and read their social-networking profiles.

The proliferation of surveillance is due, at least in part, to the rising sophistication and declining cost of spy technology: Employers monitor workers because they can. Michel Anteby, a Boston University sociologist and business scholar who has watched how monitoring affects employees at the TSA and other workplaces, has also noticed that the more employees are watched, the harder they try to avoid being watched, and the harder management tries to watch them. “Most TSA workers we observed do everything possible to stay under the radar, to essentially disappear,” he said. “They try to never speak up, never stick out, do nothing that might get noticed by management. This leads to a vicious cycle, whereby management grows more suspicious and feels justified in ratcheting up the surveillance.”

In general, studies of surveillance suggest that it can increase workplace stress, promote worker alienation, lower job satisfaction, and convey the perception that the quantity of work one generates is more important than its quality. In an analysis aptly titled “Watching Me Watching You,” the British anthropologists Michael Fischer and Sally Applin conclude that workplace surveillance creates “a culture where … people more often alter their behavior to suit machines and work with them, rather than the other way around,” and that this tends to erode their sense of “agency.” That is, the constant surveillance of employees diminishes their capacity to operate as independent thinkers and actors.

Worse yet, some studies suggest that workers who sense they are monitored have lower self-esteem and are actually less productive. In fact, Anteby told me, those of us who do “cheat” on the job often do so in retaliation for the very lack of trust surveillance implies.

Paul Ciano

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