'Tattleware' not only intrusive but ineffective

Emma McGowan 19 Oct 2021

Rather than imposing privacy-invading tattleware on their employees, employers should instead reevaluate how they measure success

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, thousands of companies suddenly had to adapt to remote work. While many started relying more heavily on software they were already using — such as Slack for team interaction, Zoom for meetings, and Google Drive for collaboration — others introduced their teams to a new kind of tech. It’s colloquially called “tattleware” or “bossware,” according to reporting by the Guardian, and it exists to give bosses and managers a literal view into what their employees are doing at home. 

There are multiple types of tattleware, ranging from keystroke loggers to browser tracking to random screenshots of the employees’ screen. One company highlighted by the Guardian not only takes a photo of the employee every minute, but even encourages people to click on those photos to pull a coworker into a video chat. The companies and their proponents argue that this type of surveillance of employees simply mirrors the experience of working in an office.

But Jaya Baloo, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) of Avast, disagrees. In her view, employers have no right to impose on the privacy and autonomy of their employees. 

“I think it’s abhorrent,” Baloo says. “This is never the kind of company we want to be or the kind of company we want to work for.”

Baloo also believes that this type of monitoring places emphasis on the wrong metrics. “Butts in the seat” or the standard eight hour work day is less relevant for “knowledge workers” than producing results.

“This goes to a more principled stance on what you find acceptable and how to measure performance,” she says. “I strongly believe it’s based on what you produce, not how much time you spend there. Whether you need six minutes or six hours should be irrelevant, but alas it is not in so many cases.”

Baloo points to her own team, which has a range of working styles, as an example. Her penetration testers (pen testers) work in “short bursts of amazing productivity to find amazing things,” she says. It might take them only a few hours, but they uncover issues that push the company forward. Then, they’re wiped out — and need some down time. 

Her computer emergency response team (CERT), on the other hand, usually works 24/7 for extended periods of time. That’s a requirement for their job, because they have to respond to incidents. However, once those incidents are taken care of, Baloo wants them to be completely offline and to use that down time to conserve their energy and build up their creativity. “I would much rather people work at the cadence of what’s expected of them on a job basis, rather than everyone having a straight jacket of how to work,” she says. 

The eight-hour day was originally created in response to abusive companies overworking their employees in physical labor jobs, like factories or butchers, for example. But the computer-based work of today is not physical labor and, therefore, it seems odd to hold knowledge workers to that standard.

“Anyone who does that clearly has an outdated view,” Baloo says. “People who are unproductive will be unproductive regardless of whether they’re working from home or the office.”

Rather than imposing privacy-invading tattleware on their employees, employers should instead reevaluate how they measure success. Is it about “productivity?” Or is it about results?

“Let’s be honest, every minute a photo? Is anyone actually looking at the photo?” Baloo says. “Did a manager walk by every minute? I just don’t get it.”

Further reading:
WFH not WTF: How to make the transition to a total working-from-home company