Rules on surveillance at work need to be tightened

Companies are failing to inform employees when they use digital tools to monitor employee activity. There is a need to tighten the rules, and we can look to Canada for inspiration.

More and more companies are adopting digital management tools to monitor employees' activities and measure their online behaviour, productivity, well-being and time use. However, in many cases, employees are not well enough informed about the scope and purpose of data collection, according to a new report published by IDA, together with HK, the Data Ethics Council and the ADD project.

At the same time, there are several examples of companies failing to comply with the GDPR provisions on disclosure obligations, which require employers to provide employees with easily accessible information about data collection and digital controls in the workplace.

IDA is therefore calling on both the Danish Data Protection Agency and business organisations to emphasise to employers that they have a duty to actively inform employees about data collection and digital surveillance. 

"Digital tools can measure each employee's productivity very precisely, but often it is not clear what the data is used for. This can create a sense of surveillance, which can lead to stress, insecurity and mistrust among employees. Therefore, it is important that employers are transparent about the purpose of data collection", says Malene Matthison-Hansen, Chair of IDA's council of employees.

Only one in four know the rules

In the report "Digital data collection in the workplace" 63 per cent of employees surveyed said that data is collected about them at work. However, only one in four are aware of the rules that apply in their own workplace, and 70 per cent say that their manager has not spoken to them about why employee data is being collected.

According to the Danish Data Protection Agency, the employer must take active steps to inform employees about the collection of data. It is not sufficient that the information is on a website that employees have to find themselves.

"Our survey indicates that many employers lack focus in this area, even though it is their responsibility to ensure that employees receive clear and unambiguous information about data collection," says Ms Matthison-Hansen.

She points out that digital management tools are growing rapidly abroad and that the most intrusive types of surveillance software can, for example, track what websites you visit, what you type or switch on the camera on your computer when you are working at home. Employers can use this information to assess which employees are most valuable to the business and which are most expendable.

"Employee data can be sensitive and utilised in ways that can potentially have significant consequences for employees' jobs, well-being and career prospects," says Malene Matthison-Hansen.

The balance of power is tipping

In 2020, the Danish Data Protection Agency conducted an investigation in this area among a handful of selected companies. None of them complied with the obligation to inform employees when using, for example, CCTV surveillance, logging of internet use, time recording or GPS tracking. The Danish Data Protection Agency criticised the companies, but they escaped further sanctions or fines.

"The use of digital management tools will only grow in the coming years and risks tipping the balance of power between employers and employees. Therefore, there should be stricter requirements for employers and the possibility of sanctions if they do not comply with the duty of disclosure", says Malene Matthison-Hansen.

Inspiration from Canada

She points to the recent introduction of Bill 88 in Canada, which requires all companies with more than 25 employees to have a written electronic surveillance policy that describes the digital tools used in the workplace and the purpose of data collection. Employers must also ensure that each employee receives a copy of the company's policy. Similarly, a number of Democratic Senators in the US have recently introduced the Stop Spying Bosses Act, which requires employers to publicly disclose what data they collect.

"We would like to see a similar model in Denmark. We need to build a broad societal understanding of the positive and negative consequences of using these tools when they are introduced to measure employee performance, efficiency and well-being. Therefore, we need to bring hidden surveillance into the light and promote an open dialogue about the new technologies in the workplace", says Malene Matthison-Hansen.

The new report also shows that only 4 out of 10 managers are fully confident that they comply with applicable legislation when using digital tools to collect data on employees. At the same time, 53 per cent of employees surveyed have not been informed of their right to access the data their workplace collects about them.

The survey was conducted by the Danish Society of Engineers, IDA together with HK, the Data Ethics Council and the ADD project in December 2022 among 1,120 representatively selected working Danes aged 18-64 years.