ICO urged to protect workers from surveillance software

MPs, unions and academics call for rules on the use of tech that can monitor remote workers

Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

MPs and academics have asked the Information Commissioner to draw up new rules to protect home workers from potential surveillance software that could allow bosses to snoop on how many days they have been logging on and sending emails.

The call for new rules comes after Microsoft 365’s Productivity Score function was widely criticised for allowing people to see data on individual staff output.

Microsoft has since changed its system to stop the collation of data on individuals, although they have stressed it was an opt-in function and aggregated over 28 days. Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, said the score function was not a monitoring tool.   

This week the union Prospect, a cross-party group of MPs and some of the country’s leading data ethicists and artificial intelligence academics have written to Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham asking her to update the employment code to try and catch up with advancements in software for home working.

Digital tools on the market that can be being used to monitor staff includes systems that allow people to take screenshots of desktops and laptops remotely, noting login times and active screen time.

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Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect said: “Technology is changing the way we work and are managed. As we come out of this crisis, technology should be about making our lives better, not introducing a new level of micro-management and intrusion. The ICO need to make it much clearer to employers that they have legal duties to consult their workforce before introducing new technology like this, and ultimately we need action in the forthcoming Employment Bill to make sure that our rights as workers keep pace with developments in AI and other new technology.” 

He said tools like the ones introduced by Microsoft risks people “sleepwalking” into a situation which he described as the “mass surveillance” of employees working remotely.

Labour’s shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah, who co-signed the letter, said the government needs to set out a clear legislative framework which supports individual digital rights at home and at work considering many people’s homes are now their workplaces.

Denham has been asked to consider that the scale of concerns about software has outpaced current guidance available from her office on the nature of employment practices and this now needs updated.

They suggest that any use of personal data through monitoring software should be subject to a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) before it is introduced.

They also want the Information Commissioner’s Office to update its Code on Employment Practices, as well as to review guidance provided on how a DPIA should be conducted, in particular on the need for employers to involve affected workers and unions in assessing and review process.

The letter, shared with PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, said: “Covid has highlighted how just how quickly technology is adapting and, with the widespread move into remote working, there is an urgent need for clear, updated guidance stating employers’ responsibilities, workers’ right in relation to privacy, and standards on consultation.”

MP signatories include Kirsten Oswald, SNP spokesperson on work and inclusion and Labour’s Zarah Sultana, who sits on the Science and Technology Committee.

Anna Thomas, director at the Institute for the Future of Work, Professor Lina Dencik, from Cardiff University and director of the Data Justice Lab, Dr Allison Gardner of Keele University who works on AI ethics and privacy and Ivana Bartoletti, who runs Women Leading in AI and is data ethics expert, also signed the letter.


Sam Trendall

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