Growing AI surveillance of workers likely illegal

Employers using software to monitor workers’ every movement are likely to be in breach of EU privacy laws, trade unions warn today as they launch a new report on artificial intelligence at work.

The use of surveillance programmes which allow management to monitor every mouse movement and keyboard stroke of their workers – or even access their webcam and microphone – has grown during confinement.

Trade unions have identified at least 11 websites offering companies software which will give them “total control over employees’ computers” or an “over-the-shoulder view of your employee’s PC no matter where in the world they are working”.

All of the software advertised is in breach of the EU’s general data protection regulation, leaving any European companies using their services open to a legal challenge they are likely to lose.

But the situation risks being made worse by weak proposals for EU legislation on AI that fails to properly address its use by employers and impact on workers’ rights. The draft legislation identifies some elements of employment as a “high-risk” use of AI, but the sale and use of such “high risk” AI systems are allowed if they comply with an assessment based on internal control checks, effectively creating a system of self-assessment.

Today’s report by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) warns this approach stacks the deck in favour of tech providers when the priority of this Regulation should have been to protect EU citizens and workers’ rights.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has written to MEPs calling on them to correct the imbalance between the interests of companies and workers in the European Commission’s proposals, and is today holding an online meeting with the European Commission and European Parliament to discuss its concerns.

ETUC Confederal Secretary Isabelle Schömann said:

“A growing number of companies have started using unethical and likely illegal surveillance software since confinement began. But trade unions have a message for big brother businesses: we are watching you. Orwellian surveillance of workers, without their knowledge and consent, breaches EU privacy law and basic democratic EU values and principles. The way forward: involve trade unions to shape a sustainable and social responsible digital transition at work”.

“The intrusive use of AI to monitor every movement of people working from home is a clear example of why the EU needs strong rules on the use of AI in employment in future”.

“The Commission’s draft proposal opens the door to further abuse of AI by employers at the expense of human and workers’ rights. It’s imperative MEPs strengthen the tests that employers need to meet before using AI, including consultation with workers through their trade union.”

ETUI senior researcher, Aída Ponce Del Castillo, author of the report being launched today, said:

“I believe that surveillance software, if implemented without due care for GDPR and national privacy laws, present features that hamper individuals’ rights.

“EU law requires transparency and accountability to monitor employees. With the increase in telework, a growing number of companies may have started using intrusive surveillance software and some have taken the risk of doing so without consulting workers. There is a strong possibility that the use of such software would be found in breach of EU privacy laws if workers challenged them in court.

“Work should be based on trust between an individual and an employer. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship. Spying, monitoring every single minute of someone's life at work, what website they visit, what they do and don’t do, is not how such a relationship can be built. Beyond the legal considerations, this is about the kind of world we want to live in.” 


ETUI report: The AI Regulation: entering an AI regulatory winter?

ETUC resolution on the European strategies on artificial intelligence and data 

Examples of surveillance software


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