Big Brother is coming to a workplace near you, and the privacy regulator wants a word

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has weighed in on the thorny issue of workplace monitoring with guidance to ensure employers stay on the right side of the law.

As far as the ICO is concerned, "monitoring workers" means any form of monitoring of people carrying out work on behalf of the employer. This might include anything from recording calls to snapping the odd screenshot, recording keypresses, or peering at webcam footage.

This might occur in the office or offsite during or outside work hours.

However, the monitoring, according to the ICO, must take place in a fair and lawful way.

According to the ICO, 70 percent of the public would find it intrusive to be monitored by an employer. Nearly 19 percent reckoned they had already fallen under the gimlet gaze of The Boss.

Although the law in the UK does not prevent monitoring, it must be done in a way that complies with data protection requirements and Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 concerning the right to respect for family life.

It is, therefore, a balancing act for employers – sure, employees can be monitored, but a lawful basis must be identified. And consent is always needed.

The latter is unsurprising, given a recent UK government report into monitoring that recommended companies ensure they consult and get consent from staff they are tracking.

Even then, the ICO guidance recommends thought be given to how and what data is collected and consideration to whether an employee is on site or working from home. After all, random snooping via webcam might be an unwelcome invasion of privacy.

The ICO is big on the words "must," "should," and "could," with only the former comprising absolute rules to follow. For example, workers must be informed if calls are to be monitored, but employers should ensure workers understand the purpose and extent of any monitoring.

That said, the guidance is helpful for employers considering monitoring their staff. With some US companies deploying monitoring tools, businesses with UK operations need to be aware of what can and can't be done.

Microsoft famously came unstuck after it inadvertently exposed employee monitoring – as far as some privacy campaigners were concerned – via 2020's Productivity Score, an incident that emphasized the amount of data it already had on file.

Emily Keaney, deputy commissioner of Regulatory Policy at the ICO, said: "Our research shows that today's workforce is concerned about monitoring, particularly with the rise of flexible working – nobody wants to feel like their privacy is at risk, especially in their own home."

Someone monitoring CCTV cameras

Get your staff's consent before you monitor them, tech inquiry warns


Tech companies are increasingly keen on getting workers back into the office. IBM's CEO recently warned that working from home could be bad for a worker's career while Mark Zuckerberg appeared to suggest that the Metaverse was perhaps better experienced from behind a desk as staff were instructed to return to the office three days a week.

Checking up on workers, wherever they may be, is therefore of great interest to employers.

Keaney warned: "As the data protection regulator, we want to remind organisations that business interests must never be prioritised over the privacy of their workers. Transparency and fairness are key to building trust and it is crucial that organisations get this right from the start to create a positive environment where workers feel comfortable and respected."

Transparency and trust. Novel concepts in the IT world. ®

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