Why Employee Surveillance Is Not Okay

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Writing for Aeon last week, Martin Parker, a professor of organization studies at the University of Bristol in the UK, relayed the origins of the word “management”, explaining:

“It is derived from the Italian mano, meaning hand, and it’s expansion into maneggiare, the activity of handling and training a horse carried out in a maneggio – a riding school. From this form of manual control, the word has expanded into a general activity of training and handling people. It is a word that originates with ideas of control, of a docile or wilful creature that must be subordinated to the instructions of the master.”

Though we might prefer to believe that its meaning has evolved since then to convey something more respectful and collaborative, it is still the case that workplace leaders and managers have mastery over their staff. Promotions, opportunities, hirings and firings — all life-altering events — are subject to their authority. 

It is a mighty responsibility, and abuse of managerial power can have devastating consequences. 

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From Pandemic to Panopticon: Are We Habituating Aggressive Surveillance?

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In Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she recalls the response to the launch of Google Glass in 2012. Zuboff describes public horror, as well as loud protestations from privacy advocates who were deeply concerned that the product’s undetectable recording of people and places threatened to eliminate “a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy and/or anonymity.” 

Zuboff describes the product:

Google Glass combined computation, communication, photography, GPS tracking, data retrieval, and audio and video recording capabilities in a wearable format patterned on eyeglasses. The data it gathered — location, audio, video, photos, and other personal information — moved from the device to Google’s servers.

At the time, campaigners warned of a potential chilling effect on the population if Google Glass were to be married with new facial recognition technology, and in 2013 a congressional privacy caucus asked then Google CEO Larry Page for assurances on privacy safeguards for the product. 

Eventually, after visceral public rejection, Google parked Glass in 2015 with a short blog announcing that they would be working on future versions. And although we never saw the relaunch of a follow-up consumer Glass, the product didn’t disappear into the sunset as some had predicted. Instead, Google took the opportunity to regroup and redirect, unwilling to turn its back on the chance of harvesting valuable swathes of what Zuboff terms “behavioral surplus data”, or cede this wearables turf to a rival. 

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