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We must fight for our digital rights in 2021

Andrew Pakes · 23 December 2020

As remote working has become more common, so has the technology that can monitor what workers are doing. It is time to reclaim our digital rights and privacy, says Prospect research director Andrew Pakes.

Keystroke monitoring records each keyboard button strike

This is the year in which technology kept us together. From Teams to Hangouts we learnt a new language as technology kept us in touch.

In January, Ofcom reported that just under 700,000 Brits were using Zoom, by April that had rocketed to 13 million people. Also, for many of us it was a year of firsts from not seeing grandparents to celebrating birthdays online.

One of the biggest changes, however, is in just how many of us became home workers.

Digital technology has been a life changer during the pandemic helping to keep us working and safe. But, it has also seen the growth in a creepier side of technology. One-in-five companies now say they are monitoring workers digitally or planning to do so.

Technology that allows employers to keep track of their workforce has existed for some time, but its reach has been limited. Yet, this year, as millions of us transitioned to home working in response to the pandemic it went mainstream.

Often it is not referred to as ‘monitoring’ technology. For example, Microsoft’s Productivity Score function within Office 365 sounded innocent enough to most people, but when unions and campaigners looked under the hood it quickly became apparent that this was monitoring technology in all but name, allowing employers to check up on everything from email response time to how much workers participated in group discussions.

Microsoft have now amended this function so that individual workers are not identifiable, but it demonstrates how easily this technology can creep into our working lives.

This matters because it is fundamentally about defending the idea that workers are not just productivity machines. We all have the right to basic privacy, to have a personal life that is separate to work, and to have dignity in our working lives including a level of respect and trust from our employers.

Three digital challenges

As we approach a new normal in 2021, here are three digital challenges we need to talk about.

Firstly, we need to get a grip on the growth of surveillance software. One of the main challenges is that workers are still largely unaware that this technology exists in the first place.

Polling commissioned by Prospect was undertaken to see how workers viewed the prospect of being monitored remotely. Many had not heard of the most common monitoring technologies. For example, only around a third of workers had heard of keystroke monitoring.

The good news is that our polling found a strong pushback from workers against this technology, with overwhelming majorities saying they would not be comfortable being monitored in this way.

The other piece of good news is that workers in the UK do have some rights to fall back on. The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) mandate employers to conduct impact assessments whenever they conduct large scale data collection on their employees, and part of this assessment should be consultation with the workforce and unions.

We’ve called for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data regulator, to update its Employment Practices Code to make sure that workers are informed and involved when our data is being used to manage us. GDPR rules make it clear we should be consulted, but this does not always happen.

Second, we need to challenge the always-on culture. The move to home working is a stark illustration of how our work and home lives have blurred into one.

A report from Aviva a few weeks ago revealed that more than half of all workers said they never fully switched off from work, with over a quarter saying that they were neglecting their physical and mental health as a result.

Around the world, new laws are being passed on the Right to Disconnect – negotiating new boundaries in this digitally enabled world. In the UK we are due an Employment Bill in the next 12 months. We will be campaigning as a union for a modernised suite of employment rights, like a Right to Disconnect, that can keep pace with technological change.

Thirdly, we need to make the recovery about social partnership. The early days of this pandemic were marked by government, business and unions pulling together in the national interest. We need to capitalise on that spirit and ensure that the future of work continues to be one in which workers are involved.

If 2020 was the year that this technology went mainstream, then 2021 must be the year when the issue breaks into the political arena. The battle for employee data and privacy is the new battleground of workers’ rights, it’s time for politicians to sit up and take notice.


Future of work, technology and data

Campaigning for better rights for workers over use of their data by employers