Could teleworking unwittingly lead us to 1984?
In George Orwell’s classic sci-fi tragedy, “1984,” and the countless dystopian films, novels, plays, video games and short stories it inspired, we find a future in which electronic surveillance is ubiquitous. for most people. Everyone’s awareness of constant electronic surveillance – including constant surveillance in one’s own home – is a primary tool of totalitarian control, known as “Big Brother Is Watching” by Orwell.
Surveillance is as old as governments and in no way needs electronics to be effective. The old empires relied on paid or threatened informants for surveillance, as most law enforcement and spy agencies do to this day. Electronic surveillance adds the feature that one can be monitored even, or perhaps primarily, when one is alone and at home.
Because electronic surveillance in the home allows little or no privacy or opportunity to be improper, it has developed a bad reputation. For example, a 2015 Pew Center survey found that while 54% of Americans found it acceptable for employers to install surveillance cameras at work, 55% felt that a thermostat that electronically monitored movement inside the home. was unacceptable.
Nothing characterizes the appalling conditions envisioned in “1984” better than the “telescreen,” a home (and office) device that functions much like a modern tablet, smartphone, laptop or desktop: a screen with speakers that you watch and listen to which also has a camera and microphone that looks at you and listens to you. What made TV screens awful was that Big Brother would always watch and listen to you at home (for anything that could be wrong.)
While most Americans seem willing to accept some electronic surveillance in their workplace, most seem to draw the line against similar surveillance in their home or home office. Enter the challenge of working from home, sometimes referred to as telecommuting, which blurs the line between work and home. Not all telecommuting is work from home, as many telecommuters prefer to work from a cafe, library, or public space. The trend towards working from home has been boosted by the pandemic and has raised many issues. But little attention has yet been paid to the likelihood of increased surveillance of home offices or homes. However, as the trend of working from home grows, it is likely that electronic home surveillance will become an important part of the debate about its value and attractiveness.
Supervisory issues are just one of many issues that arise as we enter a new era of large numbers of employees working all the time – wholly, mostly, or partially – from home. It is estimated that up to 80% of all US businesses plan to allow working from home after the pandemic. Issues such as team building, idea generation, loyalty and spirit development have so far dominated discussions about working from home. Home office or home surveillance is bound to be part of the debate.
At least two factors are likely to lead public and private employers to pay more attention to monitoring employees who work from home. First, cybersecurity. The attack surface that must be protected for an employee working in WiFi from home at all hours is different from the attack surface in a secure building with secure links to each workstation, mainly used at certain hours. Whether the risk comes from corporate espionage, foreign government espionage, or cybercriminals, the opportunities to covertly participate in videoconferences, intercept messages, copy documents, or simply observe them. An employee’s weaknesses are usually far greater in a home office than in a secure environment. central office space. Employer surveillance of home-based employees has already emerged as an issue in privacy-centric Europe, where investigations are already underway to determine whether such surveillance violates strict EU regulations. confidentiality.
Second, questions about the conduct of employees working from home when they are at home are inevitable. While there are many studies that indicate that employees working from home are more productive than employees working in a central office, there are also many reports of managers who are worried or suspicious of them. This was illustrated long before the pandemic when one of the federal agencies most focused on telecommuting, the Patent & Trademark Office, faced multiple inquiries with reports that most of the work done by its patent examiners at home appeared to have been done during the last days of each quarter and the press reported that an employee had developed software to make it look like he was moving his mouse all day when in fact he was not.
Not all employees working from home will be diligent, and some will find ways to outsource their workload to freelancers, students or workshops abroad. And while these hijackings can also occur in a central office space, management oversight is almost integrated into a central office, while some must be added to a home office. And, as noted, electronic surveillance in a central office space is nowhere near as controversial as electronic surveillance in the home (or home office).
To offset the risks of security breaches and employee hijacking, substantial gains in employee satisfaction and productivity have been reported for many, if not most, employees working from home; as well as the obvious reductions in spending for employers when they no longer need to simultaneously provide real estate, parking and amenities to all employees – and for employees if they no longer need to travel. Likewise, some employees are enthusiastically embracing working from home because it allows them to move to cheaper or nicer places.
For all these reasons, the era of working from home / teleworking (partially, mostly or entirely) is now inevitable, as are the consequences for cybersecurity and management. These in turn could lead to increased surveillance of home offices where employees working from home actually do their jobs… potentially challenging our long tradition of our home being a very private place. Now is the time to openly discuss the right balance between our sense of complete privacy at home and the likelihood of home office (or even home) surveillance. This discussion should take place at the start of this trend, before threats, disruptions, misunderstandings or conflicts arise.
Roger cochetti provides consultancy and consultancy services in Washington, DC He was a senior executive at Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 to 1994. He also led Internet public policy for IBM from 1994 to 2000 and subsequently served as vice president Principal and Policy Director for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified several times on Internet policy issues, and has served on advisory committees of the FTC and from various United Nations agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.