Inside the grim world of office spyware

In the space of seven days this month, the chief executive of one global company worked for more than 57 hours, or an average of eight hours a day.

He slept for almost exactly the same number of hours. Family and friends got a more meagre 17 hours of his time and he devoted an even more measly three hours to relaxing and having fun.

I know all this because the chief executive was the 34-year-old Kamil Rudnicki, and he revealed it in a post on LinkedIn.

As well he might. Rudnicki is the founder of TimeCamp, a company he set up in his home country of Poland that sells what it calls time-tracking software and the rest of us call workplace spyware, bossware or tattleware.

These Big Brotherish apps can monitor the websites workers visit and the programs they use to tally up how much time is spent on, say, Twitter vs Excel — even if people are working at home, as many more are thanks to Covid. Some apps can also log workers’ keystrokes and physical whereabouts, or take screenshots of their screen.

Rudnicki’s company made headlines around the world this month when a civil tribunal in Canada ruled an accountant owed her old employer more than C$2,700 (£1,630) after TimeCamp showed she had committed “time theft”.

The accountant had logged just over 50 hours of work that her employer said did not appear to have been spent on “work-related tasks”. She protested she had spent a lot of time working on paper copies of client documents that would not have been spotted by the TimeCamp software installed on her work laptop.

But her bosses said TimeCamp could show the time she had spent printing and its data revealed she could not have printed the large pile of documents she would have needed to work on hard copies.

Also, she would have had to upload the work she did offline into the company’s computer system, and TimeCamp didn’t show she had done that either.

It looked like a clear win for the spyware versus the human, which made me wonder how TimeCamp felt about its role in this emerging era of worker surveillance.

A bit mixed, is the impression I got from speaking to TimeCamp’s Rudnicki last week.

On the upside, the Canadian accountant’s case had boosted business at his company, whose 50 employees serve about 4,000 clients in sectors such as software, consulting and business-to-business professional services.

“For us, it’s good publicity,” he says, explaining that requests for customer demonstrations of TimeCamp’s software nearly doubled after the story broke. But the news had also amplified concern about software that Rudnicki insisted was not always used in the sinister way widely imagined.

TimeCamp sometimes helps employees prove they have worked unpaid overtime, he says. Also, most of his customers only used the software to monitor work done on specific projects so they could show their clients how many hours the jobs had taken.

Other companies only used it to check if a work computer had been used or not, rather than logging every website visited, and some regions require workers to be informed before the software is used.

TimeCamp employees have the group’s software, which allowed Rudnicki to flourish a list detailing the thousands of productive hours his team had spent in Google Docs, Gmail and so on. And the fact that he was the company’s second biggest Twitter user this month. “We don’t strive to have 100 per cent productivity,” he says. “It’s not healthy.”

That is a relief. So too is his confirmation that people have come up with ruses to trick time-tracking software, such as devices that jiggle a computer mouse to make it look as if it’s in constant use. Or the low-tech ploy of putting a coffee cup on a keyboard to press a key down constantly.

I found this news very cheering. The idea of being under constant digital surveillance is awful and I feel fortunate to have dodged it so far. For those who have not, I hope you can move elsewhere, or find a way of making monitored life less onerous. And in the meantime, remember the cup.

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