How Amazon (and Others) Spy on Workers

Key Takeaways

  • Roughly 80 percent of companies monitor employees in some fashion.
  • Remote work has spurred more surveillance by employers.
  • Two US senators say Amazon went too far to stifle union organization.

Alex Wong / Getty Images 

Amazon’s monitoring of employees’ union-organizing efforts crossed a line and drew fire from two US senators who called for an end to what they called “distressing” and “extreme” corporate behavior.

The Sept. 16 letter from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about monitoring of Amazon drivers underscores a growing trend in the American industry, where companies are surveilling employees with an invasive level of tracking on social media and electronic devices.

Michael Elkins, a labor and employment attorney in Florida, says when it comes to private sector companies, there’s a wide latitude in what they can do.

“Private sector employers are free to monitor their employees’ social media accounts, and in most circumstances (there are some exceptions for what’s called ‘concerted activity’), take action against an employee based on what is posted,” Elkins wrote in an email to Lifewire.

Amazon and NLRA

Elkins said Amazon may be crossways with the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ rights to discuss working conditions and organize.

“Since Amazon is allegedly spying on workers discussing working conditions, they may be running afoul of the NLRA, which protects workers’ rights to discuss working conditions and organize,” said Elkins. “If Amazon did create a tool to break into private groups, that speaks volumes about their culture. Legal or otherwise, poor employer culture is a recipe for disaster,” he added.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Senators Brown and Wyden believe Amazon went too far.

“The magnitude of this surveillance, the lengths to which Amazon went to keep it hidden from your own workers, and its admitted purpose are extremely disturbing and are indicative of just how much of a threat Amazon perceives its own workers to be,” the senators wrote.

Remote Work Is a Catalyst

With roughly 88 percent of employees working from home, an increasing number of American employers are spying on their own workers, according to Brian Kropp, a VP with business consultancy Gartner.

“This is the modern workplace now,” said Kropp in a statement. “If you work at a medium to large-sized company, the odds are the different behaviors you engage in will be tracked by your employer, generated, and collected by somebody in the organization,” he says.

The uproar against Amazon, however, is not just that the online giant is eavesdropping on its employees—but the reason why: Amazon’s efforts to stifle union-organizing.

An Orwellian Present

The senators quoted a Vice News report about a secret program that monitored workers’ posts in closed Facebook groups. “Your company has named this program the Orwellian-sounding Advocacy Operations Social Listening Team. This program provides regular updates to corporate staff on the content and frequency of workers’ posts, including the identity of the workers who made the posts…” the senators wrote.

“If Amazon did create a tool to break into private groups, that speaks volumes about their culture.”

Amazon responded in a statement. “We have a variety of ways to gather driver feedback and we have teams who work every day to ensure we’re advocating to improve the driver experience, particularly through hearing from drivers directly.

“Upon being notified, we discovered one group within our delivery team that was aggregating information from closed groups. While they were trying to support drivers, that approach doesn’t meet our standards, and they are no longer doing this as we have other ways for drivers to give us their feedback.”

According to Gartner, some 80 percent of businesses monitor employees using a range of tools and data sources. That’s up from 50 percent in 2019 and 30 percent in 2015.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy protection group, says employees should be extremely concerned. The independent nonprofit that has been working to protect online privacy for 30 years, and publishes a Basics document on how surveillance works, as well as a Tool Guides containing instructions for installing the most secure applications.

Tracking Tools

Gartner’s Kropp says employers use a wide range of tools to track employees, including scraping data from programs like Slack and Microsoft Teams to measure employee morale; biometrics where some companies use webcams to track facial expressions; microchips in employee’s bodies for easier access to secure locations; and programs like Euclid, which tracks the number of people who attend company meetings using Wi-Fi to monitor them.

Companies and organizations as disparate as Verizon, Allstate, Emory University, and the city of Denver use “bossware” to monitor their employees. In a social media world, privacy is rapidly vanishing. Companies, it seems, are increasing their efforts to keep watch over their workers.

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