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White House begins inquiry of employee monitoring practices

The White House has launched an inquiry into employee monitoring practices. It follows the U.S. Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, which seeks limits on unchecked surveillance.

Editor's note: This story was updated May 3, 2023.

The White House wants to know how businesses use employee monitoring systems and is appealing to workers to supply information about their employers' technology and practices.

They can comment directly and anonymously about their experiences through June 15 at the Regulations.gov. A docket to collect comments was made available Wednesday. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is undertaking this information collection.

The request for experiential data from the Biden administration came Monday -- and was not out of the blue. The U.S. Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights issued last year was designed to guide businesses and organizations on how to deploy AI ethically and states that workers "should be free from unchecked surveillance."

Employers are increasingly using automated systems to monitor, manage, and evaluate their workers.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

The White House request for information (RFI) noted that employers "are increasingly using automated systems to monitor, manage, and evaluate their workers." It is also seeking input from employers and vendors, and the information gathered will be used for planning and strategy development.

The RFI said employee monitoring systems can track workers' location, pace or quality of work, communications, interactions with other workers or customers, and computer activity. They use various techniques to do this, "ranging from software on workers' computers to dedicated electronic devices that workers wear or carry on their person."

Every aspect of behavior

Employers have access to technology to monitor every aspect of an employee's behavior and activity at work: keystrokes, chats, emails, website visits, physical movements and, theoretically, vital signs. Adoption of employee monitoring systems has increased in the last few years as more employees began working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

HR vendors define these systems as productivity monitoring tools. In some cases, employees can access dashboards to see how effectively they manage their time.

But adoption of employee monitoring technology is also prompting a backlash by lawmakers. Some states are considering employee monitoring notification laws, obliging employers to inform workers of use of the technology. A bill pending in Congress by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the Stop Spying Bosses Act of 2023, would require similar notification.

The White House is also interested in the underlying AI technology that analyzes sensor data.

"Certain applications of these systems -- when paired with decisions about working conditions, promotion, discipline, or termination -- may also treat otherwise similar workers differently on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, national origin, health or disability, or other protected status," the RFI stated.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice have repeatedly warned that employers and vendors might be held legally accountable for AI-driven discrimination.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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