The Digital Panopticon

The Digital Panopticon

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I’ve spoken many times before about what I unaffectionately call the Digital Panopticon. This is a reference to Jeremy Bentham’s construct of a panopticon, which is a building that is designed for surveillance. The occupants don’t necessarily know if they are being watched at any given moment but the layout is constructed in such a way as to prevent privacy. Ya know, kinda like what happens if you take a company’s laptop into your house in the modern era.

Recently, LinkedIn published “Is your employer living with you now?” and you can find it here: Your boss may not literally be living with you but IMHO, if you have any of their tech in your house, they may as well be. In the blurb, Cate Chapman writes:

“Employee monitoring has grown exponentially as the pandemic shifted the workplace ‘from the controlled enclosure of the corporate office to the wilderness of the kitchen table,’ writes The Economist. While surveillance software has often been deployed for security purposes, more of it is being used now to gauge the productivity of those working remotely. Monitoring features have become ubiquitous in applications such as Slack. But how much of the surveillance is constructive, or even OK in the privacy of our homes?

New York joined Connecticut and Delaware last week in requiring companies to inform staff about any electronic monitoring of their phone, email or internet activity.
Some 60% of U.S. companies used monitoring software of some type and 17% were considering doing so, a survey last year showed.”

The wilderness of the kitchen table. Jeez. 🙄 I guess that’s meant to be funny but it comes across pejorative as hell to me.

Anyhow, in the same way that salary transparency is becoming law in more places, I think it’s good that states are requiring companies to inform employees if they are being surveilled. In the meantime, for situations where companies are not required to tell you this information, please just automatically assume that your keystrokes are being logged and screenshots are being taken if you are using any form of technology from an employer. Better to be safe than sorry.

If you freelance or otherwise work for yourself, USE YOUR OWN TECH. If you use someone else’s technology, their accounts, their passwords, etc., it can open you up to liabilities if anything goes wrong. It also opens up a can of worms for them to be able to sit and watch everything you do, time your bathroom breaks, and so on. One of the things companies can do with this data is pay you for a project, screenshot everything you do, and then give that data to a cheaper freelancer to use as breadcrumbs. In other words, “Hey, here’s what this $100/hr person did. Now let’s get a $10/hr person to try to duplicate the same tactics for us.” If you escaped Corporate America to leave that mess behind, don’t turn around and bring it in to your own business.

The article that LinkedIn references is from The Economist and you can find it here:

The opening paragraph is barf-worthy for me:

“Bosses have always kept tabs on their workers. After all, part of any manager’s job is to ensure that underlings are earning their keep, not shirking and definitely not pilfering. Workplaces have long been monitored, by inspectors, cctv cameras and more recently all manner of sensors, to check how many widgets individual workers are assembling or whether anyone is dipping too liberally into the petty-cash box. In the past few years, however, and especially as the pandemic has forced work from the controlled enclosure of the corporate office to the wilderness of the kitchen table, both the scope and scale of corporate surveillance have ballooned.”


Riiiiiiiiiiiight. Because all employees should be viewed as underlings and must be constantly watched because they are all thieves.

For a TL;DR summary, these are essentially the reasons we get in The Economist article:

-It’s about safety. Cuz what if they need to find you in a fire and you’re not smart enough to find an emergency exit on your own.
-It’s about keeping data safe. They need to be sure you’re not stealing, you baddie you.
-It’s about gauging your productivity. Bingo.

I’ve already made the argument before that this is all about surveillance and not engagement. Now we’re being told (at least in a roundabout way) that I was right. In this technological era, IT can easily prevent you from accessing files or drives you don’t need to see. I guess unless you’re Tony Stark or Peter Parker. But for the rest of us, it’s easily done. So I don’t buy the argument for the vast majority of office workers that it’s all about your own safety as well as the company’s safety.

Here’s the paragraph about that from The Economist article:

“Another big reason for companies to surveil workers is to gauge—and enhance—productivity. The past couple of years have seen an explosion in tools available to managers that claim not just to tell whether Bob from marketing is working, but how hard. Employers can follow every keystroke or mouse movement, access webcams and microphones, scan emails for gossip or take screenshots of devices, often without alerting employees—often, as with products such as FlexiSPY, leaving the surveilled workers none the wiser. Some monitoring features are even available on widely used software such as Google Workspace, Microsoft Teams or Slack.”


I already hate those tools like Zoom, Slack, Teams, etc., and the creepy surveillance aspects are but one reason why. What grown adult wants to be nudged because they “took too long in the bathroom” and their light on Teams or Slack wasn’t green anymore?

Stay alert out there. Big Brother could very well be watching you. And listening. And watching your Teams light and timing your poo-poo breaks…


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