At the same time, workers were dreaming up creative new ways to evade the software’s all-seeing eye. Open plan office design has been showed to actually reduce collaboration. From this to the tiny green or yellow activity status icon on Microsoft Teams. Now, as workers return to the office, demand for employee tracking “bossware” remains high, its makers say. Surveys of employers in white-collar industries show that even returned office workers will be subject to these new tools. What was introduced in the crisis of the pandemic, as a short-term remedy for lockdowns and working from home (WFH), has quietly become the “new normal” for many Australian workplaces.
As offices emptied and employees set up laptops on kitchen tables to work from home, the way managers kept track of white-collar workers changed dramatically in early 2020. Bosses who used to count empty desks or gauge the volume of keyboard clatter had to rely on video calls and tiny green “active” icons in workplace chat programmes. In response, many employers spent large sums of money on sophisticated types of spyware in order to regain some control. Employee monitoring software, which logs keystrokes and mouse movement, captures screenshots, tracks location, and even activates webcams and microphones, became the new normal.
A game of cat-and-mouse jiggler. For many workers, the surveillance software came out of nowhere. The abrupt appearance of spyware in many workplaces can be seen in the sudden popularity of covert devices designed to evade this surveillance. Before the pandemic, “mouse jigglers” were niche gadgets used by police and security agencies to keep seized computers from logging out and requiring a password to access. Mouse jigglers for sale on eBay. An array of mouse jigglers for sale on eBay. Plugged into a laptop’s USB port, the jiggler randomly moves the mouse cursor, faking activity when there’s no-one there.
Others picked up the story and shared their tips, from free downloads of mouse-mimicking software to YouTube videos that are intended to play on a phone screen, with an optical mouse resting on top. The movement of the lines in the video makes the cursor move. “A lot of people have reached out on TikTok,” Leah told the ABC. “There were a lot of people going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this before, send me the link.’” On the other side of the world, in New York, EfficientLab makes and sells an employee surveillance software called Controlio that’s widely used in Australia.
When the pandemic hit, sales boomed among WFH employees. In the last two years, James Franklin, a young Melbourne software engineer, has mailed 5,000 jigglers to customers all over the country — mostly to employees of “large enterprises”, he says. Often, he’s had to upgrade the devices to evade an employers’ latest methods of detecting and blocking them. Leah told how her computer set her status to “away” whenever she stopped moving her cursor for more than a few seconds, so she had placed a small vibrating device under the mouse. “It’s called a mouse mover … so you can go to the bathroom, free from paranoia.”
Unable to remember exactly what he was doing that particular day, the matter was escalated to senior management who demanded to know exactly where he physically was during this time. This 45-minute break in surveillance caused considerable grief and anxiety for the company. A perceived productivity loss of $27 (the worker’s hourly rate) resulted in several meetings involving members of upper management, formal letters of correspondence, and a written warning delivered to the worker.