There are two major threats to individual privacy identified in this story about the potential for connected devices to be used in some manner against the people who have brought them into their homes: 1) That every moment will be tracked and used to target a never-ending stream of ads and retail prompts based on individual activity, and 2) That the data gleaned from these devices will present big companies a huge competitive advantage over startups without access to that information.
The first is a huge problem in and of itself. But there are also substantial implications for the workers of the future.
Connected devices have been sold on the promise of making people’s lives easier. They can have their refrigerator tell them when they’re running low on sour cream, or have their toaster tell them how many carbs they’re eating on a weekly basis. It’s an extension of the idea that through mobile apps and wearable devices you can master your health by counting steps, monitoring heart rates and more.
As connected devices invade more and more of the home, they present a real threat to the autonomy of a growing remote workforce.
According to Upwork’s latest Future Workforce Report, more and more people are choosing to work outside of traditional offices Part of the allure is to escape the constant feeling of being monitored that comes with working in those offices. That sense comes from both having managers looking over your shoulder and how companies are monitoring keystrokes, digital activity and more.
The danger comes in how connected devices, with their constant monitoring and reporting of activity, can be used to track productivity. Say someone is working but wants to have a movie on in the background while writing the report that’s due the next day. If they have an Alexa on the kitchen counter that’s turned on it will hear that movie playing. There’s the potential, then, for Amazon to sell that user activity to the company the person is working for, allowing them to question why they’re watching a movie when they should be working.
While that seems bad, there’s a real possibility it could get worse. Someone’s network of devices could be reporting on how often they get up to go to the bathroom, or open the front door to take a walk. All of that can then be used by an employer against the employee, contractor or freelancer.
This isn’t paranoia. Or at least it’s not solely paranoia. Even numbers from three years ago show a massive amount of companies were already monitoring digital activity of their employees. That monitoring is used to spur employees to work more and faster, afraid of the repercussions of not being seen as fully committed to the job.
It’s an instance where data privacy is so terribly important. While companies may be on solid legal footing when it comes to monitoring of devices and activity while in the office, the lines get blurry if someone is using their own machine within the confines of their own home. And they get transparent when it comes to using third party data in a way that the employee doesn’t have access to and never explicitly consented to.
As with many things in the modern workplace, the consolidation of corporate ownership is particularly problematic. If the company making the connected device someone has in their home is a subsidiary of the company that person works for, the data isn’t even being sold, it’s being transferred via departmental memo. And the loser is the employee, who is being held to a standard of accountability that sees anything shy of “always on, always working” as a cheat of their employer.