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Could working from home unintentionally lead us toward 1984?

Could working from home unintentionally lead us toward 1984?
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In George Orwell’s classic science fiction tragedy, “1984,” and in the countless dystopian movies, novels, plays, video games, and short stories it has inspired, we find a future in which electronic surveillance is omnipresent for most people. Everyone’s awareness of constant electronic surveillance — including constant surveillance in one’s own home — is a principal tool of totalitarian control, famously called “Big Brother Is Watching” by Orwell.

Surveillance is as old as governments and in no way requires electronics to be effective. Ancient empires relied on paid or threatened informants for surveillance, as do most law enforcement and spying agencies to this day. Electronic surveillance adds the feature that one may be watched even, or maybe especially, when one is alone and at home.

Because electronic surveillance at home allows little or no privacy or opportunity to ever be incorrect, it has developed a bad reputation. For example, a 2015 Pew Center survey found that while 54 percent of Americans found it acceptable for employers to install surveillance cameras at work, 55 percent felt that a thermostat that electronically monitored movements within one’s home was unacceptable.

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Nothing characterizes the dreadful conditions envisioned in “1984” more than the “telescreen,” a device in one’s home (and office) that that operates much like a modern Internet-linked tablet, smartphone, laptop or desktop: a screen with speakers that you watch and listen to that also has a camera and microphone that watches and listens to you. What made telescreens dreadful is that Big Brother was always watching and listening to you at home (for anything that might be incorrect.)

Whereas most Americans seem willing to accept some electronic surveillance at their workplace, most seem to draw the line against similar surveillance in their home or home office. Enter the challenge of working from home, sometimes called telework, which blurs the line between the workplace and the home. Not all telework is work from home — as many teleworkers prefer to work from a café, library or public space. The trend towards work from home was turbocharged by the pandemic, and it has raised many issues. But not much attention has yet been given to the likelihood of increased surveillance of home offices or homes. As the work-from-home trend grows, however, it’s likely that electronic home surveillance will become an important part of the debate over its value and attractiveness.

Surveillance issues are only one of many that arise as we enter a new period of large numbers of employees permanently working — entirely, primarily or partly — from home. It is estimated that as many as 80 percent of all American companies plan to permit working from home following the pandemic. Issues such as team-building, idea-generation, developing loyalty and spirit have dominated discussions about working from home thus far.  Surveillance of the home office or home is bound to enter the debate.

At least two factors will likely lead both public and private employers to pay more attention to surveillance of employees who work from home. First — cybersecurity. The attack surface that needs to be protected for an employee working on WiFi from home at all hours is different from the attack surface in a secure building with secure links to each workstation, primarily used during certain times. Whether the risk is from corporate espionage, foreign government spying or from cybercriminals, the opportunities to secretly sit in on video conferences, intercept messages, copy documents or simply observe an employee for weaknesses are usually much greater in a home office than in a secure, central office space. Employer surveillance of work-from-home employees has already arisen as an issue in privacy-centric Europe where investigations are already underway over whether such surveillance violates the EU’s strict privacy regulations.

Second, questions about work-from-home employees’ conduct while at home are inevitable. While there are numerous studies that report that work-from-home employees are more productive than employees working from a central office space, there are also numerous reports of managers who are worried about, or suspicious of them. This was illustrated long before the pandemic when one of the most telework-centric federal agencies, the Patent & Trademark Office, faced multiple investigations over reports that most of the work done by its work-from-home patent examiners seemed to be done during the last days of each quarter and press reports that an employee had developed a software program to make it appear that he was moving his mouse all day long when in fact he wasn’t.

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Not every work-from-home employee will be diligent, and some will find ways to subcontract their workload to freelancers, students or overseas workshops. And while these hijinks can also happen in a central office space, management surveillance is nearly built into a central office, whereas some of it needs to be added to a home office. And, as noted, electronic surveillance in a central office space is nowhere near as controversial as electronic surveillance in one’s home (or home office.)

Offsetting the risks of security breaches and employee hijinks are reports of substantial gains in employee satisfaction and productivity for many, if not most, work-from-home employees; as well as the obvious employer expense reductions when they no longer need to provide real estate, parking and amenities for all employees simultaneously — and for employees if they no longer need to commute. Similarly, some employees enthusiastically embrace work from home since it allows them to relocate to less-expensive or more pleasant locations.

For all of these reasons, the era of work from home/telework (partially, primarily or entirely) is now inevitable, as are the cybersecurity and management consequences. These in turn may well lead to increased surveillance of the home offices where work-from-home employees actually do their work … potentially challenging our long tradition that our home is a very private place. The time is now to openly discuss the proper balance between our sense of complete privacy at home and the likelihood of some home office (or even home) surveillance. This discussion should take place at the outset of this trend, before threats, disruptions, misunderstandings or conflicts arise.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.