The cyber arms race: Bosses use spy software to monitor staff at home… while workers fight back

The cyber arms race: Bosses use spy software to monitor staff at home… while workers fight back

A cyber war between bosses and work-from-home staff is being waged with companies turning to ever-more sophisticated spyware to monitor their employees, while workers are fighting back with their own tools.

The coronavirus pandemic was the launchpad for a fundamental shift in working patterns, with millions of staff abandoning busy offices to work from home. But, despite masks and social-distancing now consigned to the past, many white-collar workers are clinging to old routines, and demanding flexible working patterns from bosses.

Employers began turning to online tools and software to keep tabs on employees at home – even photographing them in real-time, checking keyboard and mouse movements and using phone apps to check vital signs like heart rate to determine whether they are genuinely off sick.

But outraged employees have started fighting back – by using their own technology to dupe their bosses.

Employers can monitor their employees without much effort by checking their status on work-intended apps such as Slack and MS Teams – both of which mean they can see whether every employee is ‘active’, ‘inactive’, or ‘offline’.

Slack enables bosses to go one step further and request a full data download from the company – meaning they receive records of all an employer’s activity and messages. More expensive versions of the software make it easier for bosses to track employees on a more current basis.

The cyber arms race: Bosses use spy software to monitor staff at home… while workers fight back

Software such as Sneek (pictured) allows employers to access a live stream of their employees at home, as well as photographing them every five minutes

 

Mouse jigglers allow employees to beat the system, by stepping away from their desk while their mouse continues to move

Mouse jigglers can be tiny USB sticks, larger devices or even work via Bluetooth

Automatic mouse movers: These mouse jigglers give the impression that workers are active on their screens, even if they are away from their desks

Slack: The Slack messenger can be used to monitor whether employees are 'active' - but simple software allows staff to programme their account to always remain active

Slack: The Slack messenger can be used to monitor whether employees are ‘active’ – but simple software allows staff to programme their account to always remain active

Microsoft Teams: MS Teams allows employers to monitor staff statuses, and grants them access to messages if required

Microsoft Teams: MS Teams allows employers to monitor staff statuses, and grants them access to messages if required

This is only the start of computer monitoring for employees – the use of ‘bossware’ technology downloaded onto employees devices allows them to monitor every action on a computer in real-time, meaning they can see everything you do.

Then there are apps which allow computer screens to be filmed without people being aware of it – allowing employers to access a live-stream of an employee’s monitor.

Some employers have even taken to photographing or videoing their employees due to simpler measures being easily eluded. 

One of the top software choices for this is Sneek – a group conference call system which is always on, and allows an employer to have all of their staff’s faces on screen at any one time.

It snaps photos of the employees every five minutes, allowing bosses to detect if someone is away from their desk for a long period of time, or fallen asleep in that two-hour Zoom call.

And one artificial intelligence platform even monitors vital signs of employees when they look at their smartphone to see if they’re sick.

Binah Teams, created by Israeli company Binah, comes in the form of an application for smartphones, as well as tablets, laptops and desktops.

The company stresses that its application 'does not save images or input video streams used for measurement' to assuage privacy concerns

The company stresses that its application ‘does not save images or input video streams used for measurement’ to assuage privacy concerns

Users would open the application on their device and look into the camera for up to 45 seconds so the AI can get a video of their face for analysis

Users would open the application on their device and look into the camera for up to 45 seconds so the AI can get a video of their face for analysis

Once installed, an employee, student or any other team member just has to look at their device’s camera for the AI to determine vital signs like heart rate, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate in a couple of minutes.

The results could help a business remotely determine ‘with medical grade accuracy’ if a team member really is ill, although employees couldn’t legally be forced to use it.

The company stresses that its application ‘does not save images or input video streams used for measurement’ to assuage privacy concerns.

Then there’s the more traditional spying. In 2020, The Mail On Sunday revealed that some companies were resorting to hiring private investigators to snoop on staff off sick – and see if they were really isolating when they went off with covid.

But employees are becoming increasingly tech-savvy and are fighting back against the increasingly covert surveillance.

The private investigator tack is much less foolproof now that the pandemic is over, although at the time agencies such as Diligens Private Investigations actively offered to ‘gather evidence’ on employees who were reported as falsely calling in sick.

Basic purchases allow employees to trick low-level spyware that they are actively working – while they make a coffee, reply to a personal email or simply switch off for five minutes.

Gadgets such as the USB mouse jiggler are programmed to move a mouse automatically across the screen, making it appear at first glance that you are working. It also can be used to prevent a screen going to sleep on calls or meetings.

From USB sticks for laptops to full on mouse ‘decks’, which snuggle a physical mouse inside a case and moves it accordingly, these quick hacks have risen in popularity since the pandemic began in 2020.

Employers v employees: What tech are they using?

Employers are using a variety of software to snoop on their employees and ensure they are not faking illness or absent from their desk. These include:

  • Monitoring ‘active’ status on Slack and MS teams
  • Requesting full chat and activity history on office messaging apps, including Slack 
  • ‘Bossware’ tech, or API, that allows employers to view an employee’s screen in real time 
  • Sneek runs a constant video stream of employees and photographs them every five minutes 
  • Binah Teams can check an employee’s health if downloaded on their phone 

But employees are refusing to give in. How are they evading surveillance techniques? 

  • Plug in mouse jigglers keep a screen from locking and give the impression they are active
  • Wireless mouse movers do the same – but with no risk of another device being picked up by the employer
  • Using alternative messaging or call systems to those their employer has provided
  • Software such as Presence Scheduler which keeps an employee’s status as ‘active’, even if offline 
  • Changing settings such as screensaver on personal devices 

Another useful tool is software which will keep employees’ status showing as ‘active’ on office communication apps such as Slack.

Presence Scheduler is just one of many such sites, which enables them to set themselves as active in advance for certain periods of the day – even when not at their desk.

More recent innovations include mouse jigglers which work when not connected to a mouse or computer – meaning there is no way of detecting that another device is being used by a staff member. 

There’s also additional measures employees can use if they don’t want to invest in new technology too. Using text or WhatsApp chats with co-workers instead of company-owned messaging services can reduce the amount of communication which is monitored by an employer.

For those using own devices, changing settings has also allowed them to counteract some of their boss’ measures.

Many bosses now want their staff to return to the office full-time, but are facing an uphill battle against those who would rather stay at home.

More than 80 percent of employees who worked from home during the pandemic now want a mix of homeworking and office-working, or ‘hybrid’ working, the latest figures from the ONS show.

Since February of this year, the proportion of workers hybrid working has risen from 13 percent in early February 2022 to 24 percent in May 2022. The percentage working exclusively from home has fallen from 22 percent to 14 percent in the same period.

Bosses say that workers are more productive in the office, and government figures have joined this call to get workers back into buildings.

Some are more than willing to return to the office amid fears over the rising cost of living and expensive heating costs if they continue working at home.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been particularly damning in his comments towards homeworkers, especially civil servants. He has previously toured Whitehall and left notices on empty desks to workers who were at home at the time. 

Commenting on employer suveillance, Dr Claudia Pagliari, a researcher into digital health and society at the University of Edinburgh, previously said that bosses have ‘ramped up’ their attempts to track their employee’s time, in the same way they might in the real world.

‘It has really ramped up’, she said, ‘People are home working, and many organisations are beginning to want to track what they’re doing.’

Some employees have raised ethical concerns over surveillance too – but for now, at least, it looks here to stay. 

Microsoft patents a system that can detect if employees are switching off from their voice, body language and facial expressions 

Microsoft's 'Meeting Insight Computing System', as described in patent filings, would use cameras, sensors, and software to monitor people and the conditions in a meeting - both in-person and virtual

Microsoft’s ‘Meeting Insight Computing System’, as described in patent filings, would use cameras, sensors, and software to monitor people and the conditions in a meeting – both in-person and virtual

US tech giant Microsoft has patented a tech system that scores video chat participants’ body language and facial expressions during calls. 

Microsoft’s ‘Meeting Insight Computing System’, as described in patent filings, is a mix of physical hardware and software that could be integrated into future Microsoft products, such as tablets.

The system would use a combination of cameras, sensors, and software and even thermostats around the walls for both virtual and in-person meetings. 

It would monitor factors such as body language and facial expressions, picking up on signs indicating a drop in productivity like tiredness and boredom, as well as number of people in a meeting and even conditions like light and temperature. 

All this data would be used to create an overall ‘quality score’ that would help inform the conditions of future virtual meetings, with the aim of maximising a business’s productivity.   

The patent filing, which was first spotted by GeekWire, has led to concerns from privacy experts, especially as millions of employees are now working from home.     

Read more: Microsoft patents a system that scores a video conference call 

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11168609/The-cyber-arms-race-Bosses-use-spy-software-monitor-staff-home-workers-fight-back.html

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