Changing Workplaces, New Habits and Rules: Surveillance Technology under Investigation

The new age of digital transformation has brought about significant security ramifications along with itself, implementing the notion and application of mass-scale surveillance deep into human lives. Only a couple of decades ago, the term ‘surveillance’ referred to the act of following a person, keeping track of their documents and other related information or simply watching their place of residence or work from a distance, typically conducted by private surveillance companies. Today, surveillance technologies have advanced so enormously that almost all of these tasks can be accomplished from remote locations, using high-speed information networks at levels of efficiency unseen or unheard of before. As personal and data security becomes far more important and relevant for today’s global society, understanding surveillance technology, its implications, capabilities and potential threats is also gaining priority. Luckily, popular culture and the corporate world are both deeply invested into the field, promoting products and services on a daily basis for the public to take notice. As the general public learns more about the developments in the surveillance sector, it becomes an issue of personal preference and inclination to make good use of such technologies or become a slave to the newly forming global information society.

The case of modern day China, the newly rising hegemon in global politics, economics and culture, provides a prime example of how surveillance technologies are taking over human lives. Currently, a network of 176 million surveillance cameras exists in the country with the number being expected to rise to 626 million by the year 2020. The system is constantly watching over the country’s massive population of 1.3 billion people, tracking their every move and recording it as data. Utilizing facial recognition technology as well as artificial intelligence, the system is turning China into a security state, creating a massive opposition of privacy advocates. BBC’s John Sudworth recently paid a visit to the southern Chinese city of Guiyang to “test the full capabilities of the system” and try to disappear among the 3.5 million residents of the city. Not surprisingly, the city officials who have already identified Sudworth as a suspect as part of the experiment, located him within seven minutes utilizing the massive amounts of data stored in the city’s databases. Such authorities also explained to the journalist how they could track any resident within the city, identify people they interact with and track their way back in time for further reference. Chinese official stance on the issue is simple: only criminals fear such surveillance and those who do nothing wrong have no reason to fear the system’s capabilities. Similarly, in the eastern city of Jinan, Chinese officials are using street cameras to punish jaywalkers due to high numbers of traffic accidents and injuries associated with such an act. On the business side of things, China is also exporting such surveillance technologies to other countries such as Brazil, Kenya, Ecuador and Great Britain, contributing to the creation of a global surveillance network as a primary supplier.

Education, a primary area of concern for every nation on earth, is also receiving its fair share of interest and investment from the surveillance community. The US and China are the leading societies in this regard, as both countries have already implemented sophisticated surveillance systems in several public schools. In the US, face recognition technologies are currently in use to prevent violence at schools, in addition to computer and tablet-monitoring systems intended for the same purpose. The recently passed Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) provides the necessary legal support for such policies while companies such as Hoonuit and Microsoft are currently working on algorithmic software to predict the chances of students dropping out of school. In China, some public schools utilize facial monitoring within the classroom to detect students’ moods and classify their emotions as “surprise, sadness, antipathy, anger, happiness, fear or neutral” in hopes of understanding and categorizing their moods. Machine learning applications are also used in such schools to grade exams and prevent cheating while the possibility of monitoring students’ brain activity also exists following the Chinese military’s experimentations with the technology. Advocates of privacy strictly oppose such applications, claiming that schools are places where young people develop a personal vision for life within which strict monitoring and punishment mechanisms are considered to be counter-productive for such a pursuit. Such advocates fear that the over-authoritative surveillance mechanisms used in education will create unconfident and indecisive individuals, damaging social growth and progress in the long run.

The business world has always been extra-receptive towards new technologies, especially when in need of more control and profitability over its operations. Amazon’s recent interest in necessitating wearable technology on its warehouse workers is a great example of such a reality as the company intends on producing its patented gadgets to provide them to its warehouse workers, tracking their every move on the job. Company workers have already been complaining about the hardships of working at the company’s warehouses while opponents of the idea claim that the method “could impact employee anxiety, morale and overall work culture”. Amazon ignores such claims, stating that the devices will only be used to gather data about inventory and not the workers themselves, while no extra pressure will be exerted upon company workers. An Amazon spokesperson stated that the patented gadgets will save time for the employees by liberating their hands from scanners and their eyes from computers. The devices will work in conjunction with the employees’ pulses, communicating information to the worker through vibrations, alerting them if an item was placed in the wrong bin. Opponents also claim that the company will be given extreme monitoring capabilities over employee actions and might very well end up firing some employees under the pretense of unproductivity, violating state and federal laws in the process. Currently, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act prevents US companies from utilizing biometric data to assess their workers’ performances, raising questions about Amazon’s true intentions for implementing such a technology. Considering that Amazon employees are not granted the privilege to unionize, in the case of a malpractice or disagreement, serious legal issues might emerge putting the company and the state or the federal government against each other.

Surveillance in the workplace, or as the employees name it, “spying in the workplace” is a serious issue in today’s business world and according to a recent report titled ‘I’ll Be Watching You’ by Trades Union Congress (TUC), “more than half of employees [in the UK] believe their boss is spying on them at work”. Common practices include tracking employee location, monitoring time spent by employees away from their desks as well as checking employees’ internet browsing history. Employees also suspect that managers are using facial recognition software to track their moods and such technological applications will lead to the emergence of distrust and discrimination in the workplace. Social media “snooping” is yet another concern for such employees who believe that consent should be required before such surveillance can be carried out on their internet activities. 38% of             2,100 workers who participated in the poll also underline the fact that they cannot confront their bosses about such activities, further adding to the element of distrust at the workplace. TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented on the report’s findings to state that technological advancements are always welcome at the workplace but monitoring policies should be agreed upon by both the employees and the company administrations. O’Grady also stated that labor unions should have more legal authority over employee rights at the workplace for which several legal changes are required. With giants such as Google admitting to gathering employee data regarding their whereabouts, the debate over corporate access to personal data became a mainstream issue once again, fueling sentiments of suspicion and doubt among the public and employees alike.

Smart homes have become a modern day reality and many strive to decorate their homes with smart devices and technologies. However, along with the popularization of such technologies, the issue of ‘corporate surveillance’ has surfaced, raising attention to companies’ capabilities of gathering personal data from smart homes. A recent investigation by ‘Which?’ magazine revealed that many smart home technologies frequently send data to manufacturers using video cameras, microphones and internet browsing data. Such technologies grant minimal control to their users and the investigators point out that camera and microphones installed in smart homes might very well be used to spy on individuals from remote locations. Recording capabilities of such technologies are also terrifying when considering the issue from the perspective of a naïve user, granting the manufacturers the capability to record their customers’ every action without notice or consent. In order to test such technologies, the magazine bought gadgets worth more than £3,000 to test them in a laboratory, finding out that both manufacturers and more than 20 third party firms frequently received user data from such devices. Among such gadgets was a Samsung smart TV which “connected to more than 700 distinct internet addresses after being used for 15 minutes,” utilizing the company’s user agreement within which it is stated that the company will gain the right to monitor user actions if the user signs the document. Since most customers do not read the long agreement and it is impossible to buy a Samsung device without signing it, a moral hazard becomes apparent. How can Samsung customers trust the company with its intentions to access their personal data? Samsung made a public announcement regarding the issue, claiming that user data was collected for marketing purposes only. However, given the ambitious and sometimes suspicious ambitions of the corporate world, such a statement creates nothing but further doubt and confusion for customers.

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