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'Quite concerning' - Employee monitoring software rests in a 'grey area', ethics consultant warns

There's been a major uptick in businesses wanting to keep track of what their workers are up to while working from home.

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There's been a major uptick in businesses wanting to keep track of what their workers are up to while working from home. Source: Breakfast

Sales of staff-monitoring software have skyrocketed thanks to businesses wanting to keep track of what workers are up to while working from home as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ian Howard, CEO of brand and ethics consultancy Bright Street Studio, says even the names - like Time Doctor or Staff Cop - can feel "slightly dystopian".

"It's a piece of software that can be installed on anything that you're using for work," he told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"If you're using a work computer, it's likely but not certain there's some sort of management within that computer."

There's a variety of technology monitoring different levels of activity; some simply track when you log on and off, while others can monitor the taps on your keyboard or your mouse movements.

"There's no good logging in at 7am and then going, 'Oh I was logged in for 12 hours', because if you're not using your keyboard, you're not using your mouse, they know you're not actually using anything," Mr Howard says.

Another feature is billed as "quite concerning" by Mr Howard.

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"It can take regular screenshots of your monitor, or whatever screen you're using," he says.

"That can be set up to take it at any interval you like, so every two or three seconds it could literally be taking a picture of your computer. 

"So if you just happened to be checking your Facebook feed, or you've sent a personal email, or you're even on a Zoom with a friend, that friend gets captured, their face gets captured, your email gets captured."

Initially, such software would've been created for security, as employees started taking devices such as work laptops home, Mr Howard says.

"I get the security concerns because sometimes you're definitely very careful about where that information can end up, and I get that you might want to be able to lock that down," he says.

"I think the minute that's used to track where your employee is at any given time, you start to get into a pretty grey area."

Last week, tech companies reported a 300 per cent increase in sales of employee monitoring software in New Zealand.

US-based Hubstaff said the most popular product was time-tracking when employees logged in and out.