The future of electronic work-at-home surveillance may be riding down the highway near you in the cabs of trucks, where transportation workers have been monitored for years.
Electronic logging devices or ELDs have been federally mandated for all long-haul truckers since 2018, and they must be turned on at all times inside the cabs. The goal was ostensibly to monitor hours of operation, improve safety on the roads and solve the problem of truckers on the road for too long. This was meant to avoid trucker fatigue and cut down on accidents.
But truckers have a saying, “If the wheel ain’t turning, you ain’t earning.” The ELD devices supposedly cut down on cheating happening on “swindle sheets” — the pen-and-paper logs that truckers previously used to log their hours, Bloomberg reported.
Now electronic logging devices are increasingly tracking much more invasive things such as driver eye movements using facial cameras and other types of body monitoring, according to Karen Levy, an associate professor at Cornell University.
Outside of trucking, all kinds of industries are increasingly interested in using software, sensors or other tech that makes it cheaper to surveil workers and measure more information about what workers are doing.
Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time, according to The New York Times. Many employees, working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, “idle” buttons, or constantly accumulating records. Pauses can lead to penalties, lost pay or lost jobs.
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Amazon workers have famously complained about not having enough time to go to the bathroom.
Levy studied what happens when we collect a bunch of information about what workers are doing to assess whether they’re breaking the rules. She found that workers, by following the rules, sometimes slow down and do less work than they might otherwise have done — an unintended consequence.
Tech tends to bundle things together, and ELDs are no exception, said Levy, who wrote the book “Data-Driven: Truckers Technology and the New Workplace Surveillance.” ELDs are now part of a much broader range of data collection technologies can include things like two-way messaging, alerting the office about your fuel use, how hard you’re braking, how fast you’re going or whether you’re changing lanes without signaling.
“ELDs are actually more commonly like a module in what’s sometimes called a fleet management system,” Levy said recently on Bloomberg’s investing podcast, Odd Lots. “If you ask folks why they get into trucking, many of them say explicitly … they don’t want someone looking over their shoulder measuring how they do their work.”
Investment in new workplace technologies has been soaring, according to Jason Corsello, a venture capitalist. Corsello described “performance management” as one of the fastest-growing investment categories with an eightfold increase in funding in the last five years.
Driver-facing cameras have become much more common in trucking, Levy added. With artificial intelligence, they may be able to assess how tired a worker is or whether the driver is starting to fall asleep based on, for example, head nodding. They can measure and infer that a driver is tired. Wearable devices may be used to complement these systems, measuring a driver’s brain waves, heart rate, and other kinds of biometric signals that alert the office to the state workers may be in.
There’s no evidence that ELDs are making the road safe, Levy said.
Levy predicts workers who work from home will see an increased amount of surveillance. “Post-pandemic, there’s a lot more concern from managers about workers kind of not giving it their all or shirking, or not paying attention,” she said. “This is just happening all over the place and I really don’t see that going away anytime soon.”
But there are problems measuring stuff, she added. “When you measure stuff you inherently lose a lot of context. And oftentimes the things you can measure, like how many emails somebody sent (is) not an amazing indicator of whether they’re doing meaningful work. And so workers a lot of times, still have to do the meaningful work, but they also are burdened with making themselves legible to these systems.”
Some of the most closely monitored employees in the country have become some of the most dissatisfied, such as warehouse workers attempting to unionize, New York Times reported.
A New York law went into effect in 2022 that requires employers to disclose the type of information they collect. Business groups opposed and stalled a similar rule in California.
“The technology is just growing and improving so quickly,” said Brian Kropp, the chief of research for Gartner’s human resources practice. “It’s moving faster than employees realize it is, and a whole lot faster than government can regulate it.”