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Surveillance in the Workplace – Care or Coercion?

More and more people are being put under surveillance in the workplace. Organizations that employ them cite increased efficiency. Employees for the most part are left stressed and demoralized.

Read on for the story about TSA surveillance on their employees…

Many of us are surveilled at work. Simply observing someone can change their behavior, performance, and attitude. The way us humans are wired it does not even have to be true to feel the effects. That is to say: we alter our behavior even if we just think we are being watched.

I view privacy as a fundamental human right. It is psychologically beneficial to be in control of what you communicate to whom. For example, you wouldn’t talk to your mother the same way as your manager at work the same way as a neighbor the same way as a total stranger.

People need to curate and control both the message and the medium.

Last month, ACM published an interesting article called “The Fine Line Between Coercion and Care“. It describes a study about workplace surveillance in general and then fleshes out an example of it happening in the workplace and its impact.

Deloitte Study

In 2018, Deloitte conducted a study called “People Data: How Far Is Too Far?“. As monitoring in the workplace increases there will be new opportunities and risks we will face. The question of how far to go is vital to understanding this issue. Thus, it becomes critical to understand the tradeoffs in collecting and analyzing the data.

TSA Surveillance Study

You feel and act different when being observed…

Michael Anteby, an associate professor of organizational behavior and sociology at Boston University, conducted a study over several years of surveillance by TSA management upon their staff. The study began in 2011 and concluded in 2018. He tracked the experiences and resistance strategies of TSA screeners at a large airport.

The effort was hoped to vindicate employees of any wrongdoing (example: stealing baggage items); however, it ended up creating a disillusioned workforce. Staff began to engage in what Anteby calls “invisibility practices to stay out of sight of managers watching them on CCTV”. Futhermore the “increasing surveillance made the employees feel watched in a coercive way, caught out if something went wrong but not rewarded when things went right”.

Resistance Strategies – Invisibility

Employees took up strategies to protect their privacy against the increased surveillance. The 2 approaches that Anteby lays out are:

  • Invisibility of Behavior
  • Invisibility of Self

Let’s look at each in turn.

Invisibility of behavior is characterized by temporary solace from the scrutiny of management. Employees took extended breaks, stayed out of sight as much as they could, and when asked to move to a different gate would take a route that took twice as long to complete as necessary.

Invisibility of self refers to employees disappearing in plain sight. Even though management could see them they moved under the radar, showed little to no emotion, tried not to stand out, etc. They voluntarily stripped themselves of their individuality while being monitored or even thinking they were monitored.


TSA management claimed they could not see enough of their staff while working so they installed CCTVs which in turn made behavior even worse. Management liked it because they perceived that it drove efficiency. Employees developed skillsets to keep them under the radar and free from scrutiny.


Where do we draw the line between surveillance being coercive and caring? A big problem of the increasing surveillance in the workplace is the normalization of surveillance. The more our personal lives are encroached upon the more normal it feels.

Employers monitoring their workforce must balance productivity and security considerations with employee privacy and welfare concerns.

Truck Drivers (ex. UPS) seem to respond well to surveillance in their jobs. They perceive it more as care than coercion. Still though they can game the system and have reservations about the monitoring. Stats can be inflated or understated and fake or exaggerated.

GPS ushers in a new frontier of monitoring so we must be on guard about new technologies and how they will be used.

Do you work in an office like me? Chances are you are being surveilled both by physical cameras and also digitally – monitored files transferred to external hard drives, internet usage, idle time, etc. Employers must be careful to weight the pros and cons of workplace surveillance because more isn’t always better.

If you liked this post then you might also like my recent post about Location Services and Your Privacy – Hide Yo Kids Hide Yo Wife.

Do you care about InfoSec and Privacy? Then YOU need to use a VPN.

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