Before taking any action around surveillance, it is important to join a union. Being part of a union means you will not face consequences alone: unions will provide you with the expertise and support you need, and may take your case all the way to court if necessary (without you having to hire expensive solicitors!). Your employer has money and a whole company on their side, so don’t face them on your own: join a union!
If there is already a union in your workplace, you should join it. If you work in tech (whether that’s as a programmer, app-based worker, or a non-technical role in a tech company) you should join UTAW.
If you’re not sure, you can use the Trade Union Congress’s online tool to find the union that’s right for you.
There are a number of ways your employer might be monitoring you. Take a look at the “What Is Employee Surveillance?” page for more details.
Your Work Computer
If you work on a company computer, there may be software running in the background to monitor your activity. Scroll down to the Spotting Surveillance Software section below for some guidance on how to deal with this.
If you see a program on the Task Manager which seems suspicious to you, or if your employers ask you to install new software which you do not interact with, try searching for it online to see what it does.
Employers might not use software explicitly designed for surveillance in order to monitor you. There are programs that allow a certain level of indirect monitoring. For example, if your company uses a chat system like Slack then your manager might require you to maintain an Online status throughout the working day. Another example is Microsoft365, which for a while was collecting activity data into a Productivity Score on every user in an organisation. Microsoft removed this functionality due to public outcry.
Your Work Email
You should assume that your work emails are monitored. They might be actively monitored by a human or passively by an algorithm, or they might just be stored for later reference. Best practice is to avoid using your work email for non-work communication. Likewise, if you’re discussing union or workplace issues with your colleagues, best practice is to use your private emails or an encrypted messaging app like Signal on your personal devices.
Your Work Phone
Similar to your work email, you should assume monitoring of GPS and communication on your work phone. Unlike computers, phones don’t have built-in task managers and it’s much easier to hide surveillance software. Just think of all the permissions the various apps require! So if in doubt, leave it out.
The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR for short) gives every person the right to request a record of what personal data a company has on them. This is called a Subject Access Request (SAR), and you can take it to your employer to find out what data they gather and process about you.
Your personal data is not simply your name and contact details. It also includes any and all information which could be used to identify you, directly or indirectly. This includes, for example, location data from your work phone, usernames, physical and mental descriptions, and any cultural or social categories you might identify with that can be used to identify you.
According to Article 15 of the GDPR, your employer must provide the information requested in the SAR together with “additional information”. The employer should have a policy outlining what the “additional information” is. It may include:
- The purpose for which they process your data
- Categories of personal data being processed
- Who receives or has received your personal data from your employer
- Information about where they get your personal data from if the data does not come from you
- Information about how data security is safeguarded in the case of cross-border data transfer
- How long personal data is kept for, or the criteria used to determine the storage period
- Whether your employer uses automated decision-making and profiling. If so, the automatic decision-making process used and what this means for you
- The existence of the right to rectify or erase your personal data, or to object to, or restrict, the processing of it
- The right to lodge a complaint with a supervisory authority. In the UK, this is the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Your employer must give you a copy of your personal information without charge, but can charge for further requests. If you make your request by e-mail then your employer must provide the information in electronic format unless you requested it in a different format.
One of the ways to spot surveillance software running on your computer is to look at Task Manager and check for any processes running that you do not recognise. You can start by checking our list of the most obvious surveillance programs at the end of this section. On all Windows computers, pressing
Ctrl+Shift+Esc will open the Task Manager as one of the options. Opening this shows you all the currently active applications. If you can see one of the programs from our list below in the Task Manager, you can select it and click End Task to terminate it. The Task Manager will also have a “Startup” tab, where you can see which programs run when you turn on your PC. If you’re not sure how your employer might react to this, join a union first.
On a distribution of Linux, you will usually be able to check running processes on a terminal using
ps -AUX, and on a machine with
systemd, you can check startup programs using
If you Google any processes you don’t recognise, you may be able to find out if it is monitoring software running the process in the background.
Alternatively, a trusted contact in HR or IT may be able to tell you. Remember that they must disclose monitoring to you by law, but it is usually worth approaching the subject constructively.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the most popular or widely used software providers on the market.