More and more voices are decrying the increasing influence of tech companies in political discourse. Many on the left and the right have called for antitrust legislation to curtail the influence of these large conglomerates. However, the increase in teleworking may open up a new and even more dangerous avenue for Big Tech to exert influence, not over politics but over everyday life itself.
A recent report from NBC News found that Big Tech companies have installed cameras inside worker’s bedrooms to make sure they are working hard enough. The report specifically examines the practices of a Columbia-based call center that services companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Uber. The details of the arrangement are truly terrifying:
The contract allows monitoring by AI-powered cameras in workers’ homes, voice analytics and storage of data collected from the worker’s family members, including minors. … “The contract allows constant monitoring of what we are doing, but also our family,” said a Bogota-based worker on the Apple account who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “I think it’s really bad. We don’t work in an office. I work in my bedroom. I don’t want to have a camera in my bedroom.”
The Bogota-based worker is simply stating a natural impulse: Most people don’t want their boss to watch them sleeping. However, vocalizing this perfectly normal response isn’t allowed. The Bogota worker gave his statement anonymously for fear of reprisal. Unfortunately, this kind of corporate behavior is happening in the United States, too.
Big Tech spies on its employees constantly. Amazon has installed cameras in their trucks to read the faces of the drivers to make sure they are watching the road. Warehouse employees are monitored for how long they use the bathroom. Google is building an entire town so that employees essentially never have to leave work.
This kind of paternalistic behavior will only escalate because of the pandemic. Google and Facebook already require vaccines for those who want to work in their office. Working from home is a perk that many employees want, but the rise of teleworking could spark a surveillance surge from companies that want to squeeze productivity out of their workers. The lockdowns helped collapse the distinction between work life and home life, and as more people work from home, surveillance stipulations could increase.
Workers should stand up and refuse to cave to these demands. Allowing a privatized Big Tech surveillance system would result in a peculiar kind of neo-feudalism. Feudalism is an economic system centered on a central employer who wholly owns the central means of production. Feudal lords had significant control over the workers’ private lives, and in return, they guaranteed their employees a high level of security.
Big Tech companies already have significant influence over what is said, what is promoted, and where we work. I don’t believe this warrants government intervention, as I’ve stated here, here, and here. Private ownership over advanced technological capabilities is far preferable to state-owned surveillance (see: China). Nevertheless, our at-home life is one of the few places Big Tech technology shouldn’t touch, and white-collar workers should set the industry standard that employers can’t spy on their employees.
The importance of privacy is more precarious than ever, but the sanctity of the home is still worth fighting over. Without being hyperbolic, this genuine “safe space” is being eroded by smart TVs, phones, and at-home devices that monitor our conversations; placing cameras in bedrooms is only the next step. It is not weird or unusual to dislike this, and Americans should be empowered to push back against it. It’s not too late to reject this brave new world.