AI: A snooper’s charter

Dozens of UK business owners are using artificial intelligence to scrutinise staff behaviour, minute-to-minute, by harvesting data on who emails whom and when, who accesses and edits files and who meets whom and when.

The actions of 130,000 people in the UK and abroad are being monitored in real-time by the Isaak system, which ranks staff members’ attributes.

Designed by London company Status Today, it is the latest example of a trend for using algorithms to manage people, which trade unions fear creates distrust but others predict could reduce the effects of bias.

The system shows bosses how collaborative workers are and whether they are “influencers” or “change-makers”. The computer can also compare activity data with qualitative assessments of workers from personnel files or sales performance figures to give managers a detailed picture of how behaviour affects output.

Users so far include five law firms, a training company called Smarter Not Harder and London estate agency JBrown, according to Status Today, which promises: “real-time insights into each employee and their position within the organisational network”. Workers do not automatically have a right to see the data, which is controlled by the employer.

The insurer Hiscox and the IT firm Cisco have used the system for short-term analysis rather than continuous surveillance, Status Today said.

But critics have warned that such systems risk increasing pressure on workers who fear the judgement of the algorithm, and that it could encourage people not to take breaks or to spend time in creative thought which won’t be logged.

“If performance targets are being fine-tuned by AI and your progress towards them being measured by AI, that will only multiply the pressure,” said Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire. “People are deemed not to be working if they take their hands off the keyboard for five minutes. But they could be thinking, and that doesn’t get measured. What is this doing for innovation, which needs creative workers?”

She said there are risks to mental health if people don’t feel free to take breaks, for example surfing social media for a few minutes or playing a game. A survey released this week revealed UK workers tend to procrastinate on average three hours a day.

The Isaak system has already gathered data on over a billion actions, which it uses to pinpoint “central individuals within a network” to better allocate workload and responsibilities, “ultimately improving the overall workplace environment and reducing stress and overworking”.

It is part of what experts have labelled the “precision economy”, in which more and more aspects of life will be measured. The Royal Society of Arts predicts that in the next 15 years, life insurance premiums will be set with data from wearable monitors and workers in retail and hospitality will be tracked for time spent inactive. As gig economy working spreads, people will only qualify for the best jobs with performance and empathy metrics which pass a high threshold. Those with lower scores will only have access to the most menial and sometimes miserable tasks such as content moderation on social media, the RSA predicted.

Ankur Modi, the chief executive of Status Today, said his system aims to provides a “wellbeing analysis” and can detect overwork – for example at evenings and weekends. But he admitted: “there’s always a risk that it might be misused”. He agreed that it was a legitimate concern that companies could only use it to boost productivity, without focusing on wellbeing.

“If one sales person is performing well and you can see overwork and another isn’t performing well and isn’t overworked, that could be enough to start a conversation,” he said.

However he argued that it could help bosses cut out bias and discrimination by removing subjectivity from management decisions.

AI ideas that are being developed elsewhere have included the use of facial recognition software and mood monitoring at work, recording a worker’s location on wearable devices and the monitoring of keyboard strokes. A survey by the Trades Union Congress last year found that the majority of workers were opposed to all of these.

The TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Workers want to be trusted to do their jobs. But this kind of high-tech snooping creates fear and distrust. And by undermining morale, it could do businesses more harm than good. Employers should only introduce surveillance technologies after negotiation and agreement with the workforce, including union representatives. There should always be a workplace agreement in place that clarifies where the line is drawn for legitimate use, and that protects the privacy of working people.”



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We will fight for a world where everyone feels safe, valued, able to grow, and be inspired by their role and the organisation that they work for. And that starts with us…