Big Brother is Watching You – Workplace Surveillance in the COVID era

Big Brother is Watching You – Workplace Surveillance in the COVID era

George Orwell’s 1984 imagined a dystopian future in which the population were watched 24 hours a day by an all-seeing totalitarian government with cameras installed in every working environment for workplace surveillance and  in every home to ensure total compliance with the state.

Orwell’s worst fears have not, as yet, completely come to pass but the ghost of Winston Smith will have twitched a little with the news that the global communications giant Teleperformance is planning to install specialist surveillance webcams on the PCs of homeworking staff

The French based Company employs 380,000 staff worldwide and provides call centre services for a number of household names. It proposes to use the new webcam technology for team meetings and training events. However according to The Guardian the webcams will also be linked to an artificial intelligence system which can randomly scan employees desktops for breaches of workplace rules within a shift. These could include eating, looking at a mobile phone or leaving a desk without appropriate authorisation. The cameras have the ability to take photographs of potential breaches which will be sent to management and stored on company systems for up to 20 days.

Call centres have often been referred to as the sweatshops of the 21st century due to the low wages and high levels of management control which are prevalent within the sector. The increase in homeworking during the COVID pandemic poses particular challenges for this employment model. It is clearly a lot more difficult to micro-manage an employee’s conduct when they are not physically present in front of you. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that call centres would be the first workplaces to attempt to harness cutting edge communications technology to impose surveillance upon their staff within a home working environment.

The use of workplace surveillance technology is, in fact, tightly restricted under UK employment law. A central resource is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Employment Practices Code which sets out 12 principles which an employer must satisfy to lawfully monitor staff through surveillance cameras in the workplace. The use of cameras must be for a specific purpose to meet an identified and pressing need; it must be regularly reviewed and take into account the effect upon individuals and their privacy; it must comply with a lengthy set of procedural safeguards to ensure the lawful processing of any images which hare obtained.

The ICO’s rules are supported by case law under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which has consistently found that the widespread and systematic use of workplace surveillance cameras is an infringement of an employee’s right to privacy.

Perhaps mindful of these restrictions, Teleperformance have now clarified that they will not use their cameras for wider surveillance purposes in the UK (although the rules will be different in unspecified ‘other countries’). However with homeworking now the norm for millions of employees it is surely only a matter of time before the issues around homeworking, surveillance and privacy are tested in our domestic courts.

This blog is by Mark Alaszewski, solicitor at didlaw.