Summary contributed by our researcher Alexandrine Royer, who works at The Foundation for Genocide Education.
*Link to original paper + authors at the bottom.
Overview: By drawing on data from a Pew Research Center national survey, Stark et al. conduct a statistical and qualitative analysis of gender-based responses in the use of facial recognition technologies in workplace monitoring. The authors further discuss the increasing popularity of digital surveillance tools and their implications for minorities and vulnerable groups’ privacy concerns.
The worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 has seemingly changed the future of work by forcing millions to leave the office and transform the home into their designated working space. The sudden transition to work from home has brought its onset of challenges, from being confined to a one-bedroom apartment, juggling childcare, battling feelings of loneliness, and losing track of a healthy work-life balance. As one Twitter user, Neil Webb, adeptly pointed out, “you are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” Amid this crisis, to keep tabs on their employees, companies are deploying digital monitoring systems to ensure that worker productivity remains high. However, the use of digital monitoring is not as new a phenomenon as it may seem, as revealed by this December 2019 study by Luke Stark, Amanda Stanhaus, and Denise L. Anthony. The authors assess whether gender differences exist when it comes to facial recognition technology (FRT) in the workplace and offer a more general discussion of current digital workplace surveillance.
No one likes their boss breathing down their back when trying to accomplish a task. With digital surveillance, you are constantly under the watchful gaze of your employers, yet this monitoring happens in insidious ways, often unbeknownst to you. To understand women and men’s perspectives on digital surveillance, the authors drew on survey results from the Pew Research Center to produce a multivariate registration analysis of self-identified female or male respondents’ opinions of FRT-enabled workplace cameras. The authors acknowledge that the male versus female binary is a partial and exclusionary definition of gender but note that they were constrained by the categories used by Pew. The survey, dating back to 2015, was distributed among a sample of 461 U.S. adults over the age of 18.
Despite the long history behind factory tools aimed at controlling workers’ time and effort, Stark et al. note the drastic changes in the pervasiveness and extent of workplace control brought on by new technologies. Today, employers use facial analytics, workplace screenshots, email and keystroke analysis, and online searches to keep workers in check. Around 75% of U.S. companies monitor worker communications and activities. Surveillance is justified on the grounds of productivity and workplace safety or security. Still, such discourses obscure the power asymmetries present in digital workplace surveillance and its tendency to amplify racial, gender, and class inequalities. The authors offer examples of women who face increasing scrutiny in the workplace through surveillance categories and yet do not benefit from additional production from harassment and assault. They also point to the expanding use of FRT in automated hiring questionnaires by firms such as HireVue designed to rank a candidate’s body language and emotional expression irrespective of the racial and gender biases encoded in the software. Excessive workplace monitoring, in addition to creating an environment of distrust, can frequently lead to counter-productive results by generating “anticipatory conformity” among employees or encouraging employees to utilize resistance tactics to avoid managerial scrutiny.
The authors point to a correlation between industries that subject employees to high workplace surveillance and the overrepresentation of low-wage minority and female workers, such as the retail sector, hospital administration, and childcare. They cite earlier research by Bell et al. in 2012 that found women in call centers were more likely to complain about excessive or intrusive forms of personal information collection via emails and CCTV cameras than their male counterparts. From their own data analysis, Stark et al. found that “women are 49% less like than employed men to say workplace surveillance via cameras with facial recognition software is acceptable”. Feminist and gender scholars have pointed to the heightened awareness of women in the workplace, often being the subject of unwanted male gaze and advances. Surprisingly, there were no statistically significant differences between men and women were in perceptions of privacy; in the Pew survey, this was measured by a declaration of not wanting to be monitored at work. Both women and men expressed similar concerns over the intrusiveness- the erosion of individual autonomy-, fairness, and totalitarian aspects of workplace surveillance, arguing that FRT could quickly lead to power abuses.
Stark et al. recognize the apparent limitations of their study, noting that the Pew research survey took place before the emergence of the #MeToo movement, which empowered women to denounce in higher numbers workplace sexual harassment and assault. The questions asked in the Pew survey involved scenarios relating to workplace theft, rather than concerns over civil liberties or sexual misconduct, and did not inquire about respondents’ occupations. This is a considerable failing as the authors note that “given the distribution of power in the workplace in which managers and supervisors are more likely to be male, the application of workplace camera surveillance technologies would be controlled by precisely those likely to be the harassers.” The Pew survey also makes the crucial omission of allowing respondents to self-identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, with digital systems often misgendering and adversely impacting queer and trans people.
While academic research on digital workplace surveillance is likely to emerge in the coming months, there remains a need for more in-depth studies and inclusive studies of gender-based attitudes and concerns towards digital monitoring. Media outlets are already reporting how COVID-19 work from home monitoring poses a dangerous precedent that risks nullifying employee privacy, sour employee and employer relations, and threatened mental well-being by incentivizing overwork. In the Canadian context, Calgary-based Provision Analytics saw a boost in clientele, and in the US, San-Francisco tech startup Pragli reported similar growth. With the increasing implementation of FRT and emotion recognition technologies in corporate, commercial, and retail settings, it is high time lawmakers intervene to regulate workplace surveillance. Whether the use of such systems is ethically permissible also ought to be a broader civic debate.
Original paper by Luke Stark, Amanda Stanhaus, Denise L. Anthony: https://asistdl.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/asi.24342