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Watching You Work: The Increased Use of “Tattleware”

Trevor R. Thomas

Co-Founder + Partner
May 11, 2021

What is “tattleware”? During the pandemic, and as a result of increasing remote work arrangements, many employees may have been required to install software on their company-issued devices (phones, etc.) that monitors what they do all day. The monitoring can take several forms – from geographically tracking the location of the company-issued device to recording the employee’s mouse movements, keyboard strokes, and webpages they visited. This software is colloquially referred to as “tattleware”, and it can be a significant intrusion into employer-employee relationship and the employee’s sense of autonomy.


Before we delve into the issues tattleware creates, let’s first look at three types of this software and the features their creators emphasize:


1. Blip by BrightHR. Blip is a mobile application that lets employers track employees’ work hours and locations. BrightHR describes one of the features of Blip as follows: There’s Blip’s clever geolocation feature. Use the app to create a geofence—a virtual boundary—around your workplace. Then, when your employees enter or leave the geofence, Blip picks up their location and asks them to clock in or out—helping you to see exactly where your staff have worked and how long for.


2. Hubstaff. Hubstaff created time-tracking software to monitor employees. Two features marketed by Hubstaff are “App and URL Tracking” and “Optional Screenshots”. The App and URL Tracking feature is marketed as: Proof of work features help establish trust and confidence in remote teams. These features are only active when your team is working. The Optional Screenshots feature is marketed as: Know that the right work is getting done without having to check-in. Random screen capture can be turned off or fully customized.


3. Time Doctor. Like Hubstaff, Time Doctor has time-tracking software to monitor employees. Some of the more interesting features of the software include: a “Time Use Alert”, which is marketed as Alerts remind you to stay off Facebook or other timewasters. The Off Track Reminders feature is marketed as Nudges when visiting non-work related sites. The Track Breaks feature is marketed as Track breaks and time spent away from the computer.


Despite the delightful marketing language, this technology is quite troubling. Three particular areas of concern are the following:


1)      Does the employee have a choice or is the software mandatory? If mandatory, the employer should clearly inform all candidates during the hiring process that, as a condition of employment, the employee will be required to consent to the use of this software. If the company is introducing this software to current employees, this represents a material change to the terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, “consideration” is required in order to enforce the legality of the change.


2)      Privacy Concerns – Data collected by this software includes information that falls under the Personal Information Protection Act.  As a result, employers using this software have certain statutory obligations around the collection, use and disclosure of the information. In fact, section 2 of the legislation states that the purpose of the Act is:


… to govern the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by organizations in a manner that recognizes both the right of individuals to protect their personal information and the need of organizations to collect, use or disclose personal information for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.


As a result of the requirements of the Act, employer must ensure that they are aware of, and complying with, their obligations when obtaining, using and disclosing information from and about employees.


3)      Necessity – The idea that an employer has to monitor its employees’ actions for the purpose of assessing performance/efficiency raises questions about company’s culture and hiring practices. It seems obvious that a Big Brother type of working environment inherently lacks trust, which is a key aspect of any functional employment relationship. The message sent to employees through the use of tattleware is: we don’t trust you. A lack of trust in any relationship can stifle growth, creativity, and vulnerability; three significant factors that employers should encourage in the workplace.


While employee accountability is important and employers have the right to make sure that their workers are carrying out their jobs, it is important to make sure that the steps taken to do so do not actually undermine the employment relationship.


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