7 Comments

Summary:

Big data and the ability to analyze unstructured data enable all sorts of great applications, but it’s debatable that monitoring employees is among them. Analyzing emotion like Microsoft Yammer does, or spotting fraudulent plans in emails, make nice stories, but where do we draw the line?

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Updated: As if the dread of heading into the office on Monday and firing up some ugly, cumbersome enterprise software after a weekend of playing with an iPad weren’t bad enough, here’s another reason: Your bosses might be spying on you. They probably won’t call it spying, though. They’ll call it something like monitoring employee morale or fraud prevention.

Update: On Wednesday, the MIT Technology Review highlighted two of the latest technologies they might be using. One is called Crane and is part of  is available as an add-on to Microsoft’s Yammer collaboration software, via emotion-analysis specialist Kanjoya. It purports to gauge employees’ emotions based on the content of the messages they post on the workplace social media platform.

Another comes from intelligence-industry big data specialist Digital Reasoning, whose software, Jessica Lieber writes, can infer the intent of employees’ e-mails without having to search for specific incriminating phrases.

The technology is interesting and there certainly are pros to monitoring communication over corporate networks. As Lieber wrote about the Digital Reasoning software, “[B]efore the financial meltdown, Goldman Sachs employees wrote e-mails bragging of selling blatantly terrible investments to clients. [Digital Reasoning CEO Tim] Estes says his software could have helped compliance departments catch such activity.”

Talking about Yammer, Tom Simonite explained the case of a test user that learned employees were annoyed at, and actually made felt stupid by, a new e-mail system, which the company ultimately fixed.

But this sort of technology is nothing new, and it’s not necessarily all good for employees or their employers. Last year, I wrote about Cataphora, a company whose software lets employees intelligently monitor corporate-network communications in much the same way Digital Reasoning’s software might. Cataphora CEO Elizabeth Charnock and I spoke about a broad range of legal and ethical issues, ranging from obvious use cases such as fraud prevention to less obvious (and less ethically sound) uses like keeping depressed workers from operating heavy machinery or tracking how long employees spend on Facebook.

One interesting thing, she noted, is that knowing too much about employees can actually come back to bite employees in certain lawsuits.

To hear more about what Charnock has to say on the issue of turning big data on employees’ messages, check out Mathew Ingram’s interview with with her at our last Structure: Data conference.

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Feature image courtesy of
Shutterstock user Andrej Vodolazhskyi.

  1. With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, Google plus, twitter, etc. & numerous blogging platforms, monitoring employees has become almost imperative for employers. But too much spying may cause frustration in employees.

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  2. Huh? I read the article and still don’t understand the call to action.

    We’re supposed to be up in arms about companies monitoring our work software and systems…even though the right for them to do this is probably clearly established in the rules for most major companies?

    Or we’re supposed to quit corporations and form our own companies (if we haven’t already), and never ever monitor our own employees? (Exposing us to liability and security issues, of course.)

    What about Federal laws on record retention? Are we supposed to be comfortable that there are corporate environments where people can hold unmonitored / unretained conversations? So that some employees can, say, cause a financial crisis that requires a bailout, and never have their communications tracked or retained?

    Ah, I get it, we’re supposed to feel happy spending the weekend “playing with an iPad…,” which doesn’t at all track us, right? (Hint: http://arstechnica.com/apple/2011/04/how-apple-tracks-your-location-without-your-consent-and-why-it-matters/)

    So the call to action must just be to be mad at the companies that give tools to monitor and retain for the perfectly valid reasons I mentioned.

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    1. Derrick Harris Saturday, August 11, 2012

      No call to action, really, just some information on how these technologies are coming along. As I acknowledge, it’s hard to argue with seeking out criminal activity, but the question is where you stop.

      And just because an employment contract grants the right to monitor communications on the corporate network, that doesn’t make it any less invasive or any more appealing to employees. Maybe it makes them more likely to just use consumer tools to communicate, or to decide not to work for a particular employer.

      I think this is an area that still merits a lot of introspection on both sides as to what are the acceptable boundaries.

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  3. Reblogged this on BULLETFAME.

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  4. I feel like what she’s talking about is way too intrusive. It’s the modern equivalent of listening in on phone calls 30 years ago.

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  5. Reblogged this on txwikinger's blog.

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  6. The best thing that you can do is to realize that your manager will probably feel that only guilty people will have something to hide and just to be mindful of your actions at work.

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