As millions of people switched to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, some employers searched for ways to monitor employees’ activities and productivity at home.
Enter “tattleware” or “bossware,” common nicknames for surveillance software that employers can install on company devices to keep tabs on workers' digital activities, or even make recordings of them at home.
This kind of tracking software isn’t new, but its use skyrocketed during the pandemic.
“When COVID-19 pushed people to work remotely, we saw sales of employee workplace surveillance software more than triple,” Harvard Business ethics professor J.S. Nelson told TODAY.
In fact, she said, if you work at a company with more than 500 employees, there’s a good chance that some form of surveillance software is installed on your work devices.
Reporting for TODAY, NBC’s senior consumer investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen breaks down how employee surveillance software works and shares tips for protecting your privacy.
How does “tattleware” work?
Different types of surveillance software can take pictures of everything on your screen, track every keystroke you make, log your emails and messages, note how long you spend on certain websites or apps, or even make video or audio recordings of you at home.
“You definitely need to think about being photographed,” Nelson said. “Listening through your microphone, keystroke logging software. So, recording what you’re typing at any given time, what websites you’re going to, who you’re communicating with.”
This software may be installed on employees’ work laptops, phones or tablets without their knowledge.
Jen Garcia, a systems engineer, was working from home during the pandemic when she discovered a program on her company-issued computer that could take pictures of what was on her screen at any time.
This felt like an invasion of her privacy because she “had no idea that this had been deployed,” she said.
Garcia said she left her last job, in part, because of that surveillance software.
“You’re looking at your machine most of the day, and it’s completely natural to check, you know, your personal email or something like that,” she said. “And so, at any moment, you can have something potentially very private, exposed to your employer.”
What can you do to protect your privacy?
Use a separate, personal laptop and phone for any personal activities or communications at home, instead of using a company-issued device.
Also, find a private space at home where your work-issued devices cannot see or hear what your family is doing, in case any recording software is installed.
After her experience with tracking software, Garcia also recommends demanding “accountability and transparency from your employer so that you know exactly what is going on in your own home.”
Experts also point out that if you use a work-issued exercise tracker like a Fitbit, personal biometric data such as weight, heart rate or body temperature could potentially be tracked and stored by your company. So, keep this in mind before using these kinds of devices.
Some employees also use anti-surveillance software to outsmart tracking programs on work-issued devices, according to a 2021 study by ExpressVPN.
Is there any upside to employee tracking software?
Some companies say that tracking software can protect workers.
For example, if a manager sees that an employee is working too much after hours, that might be a signal that they’re being assigned too many projects and are at risk of burnout.
Some employers also say that tracking software can help increase productivity and efficiency.
For example, Jayson Demers, CEO of Email Analytics, says his software tracking has increased email response times by 42.5%. He says his company balances tracking software with employee privacy concerns by only logging the subject lines of emails, not the contents.
However, while there may be some benefits to surveillance software, many employees rankle at the idea of their work-day activities being monitored so closely, and possibly without their knowledge.
“I don’t think it’s thought through very well,” Nelson said. “Companies are not as aware as they should be about the downsides of these choices, and the message that they’re sending to the people who work for them … which is that we don’t trust you.”