Employee Surveillance Software Demand up 54% Since Pandemic Started

With millions forced to work from home due to Covid-19, companies around the world have turned to employee surveillance software to track their staff. We take a look at what the rise of these intrusive tools might mean for the future of remote working.
Employee Surveillance Software Demand Tracker header illustration of a man working on a latop
Simon Migliano
Christine O'Donnell
Simon Migliano & Christine O'Donnell

UPDATED 03 Nov 2021 to incorporate latest employee monitoring software demand data, for June through September 2021.

Employee Monitoring Software Demand Trends 2020-21

  • Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by:
    • 74% in March 2020 compared with the 2019 monthly average. Demand for the software the following month was also 63% higher than in 2019.
    • 66% in September 2021 – the biggest increase in demand compared to 2019 since March 2020.
  • Sustained demand: 54% higher since the pandemic was declared compared to the previous year.
  • Most popular software: Hubstaff, Time Doctor, FlexiSPY
  • Eight in 10 developers of the most in-demand employee surveillance software incentivize long-term use

Remote Work & The Rise of Employee Surveillance Software

A third of the U.S. workforce has shifted to remote work as a result of the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by MIT.[1]

Fearful this could lead to a drop in productivity, employers have turned to remote monitoring software to ensure their staff work effectively from home.

This software is capable of recording almost everything an employee does on their computer, from covert webcam access to random screenshot monitoring.

The rapid rise of such invasive software risks setting new standards of workplace surveillance and dramatically undermining employees’ right to privacy.

Demand for employee surveillance software shot up by 74% in March 2020 compared to the 2019 monthly average, the same month the global pandemic was declared and lockdowns imposed. It remained high the following month too, at 63% compared to 2019.

Despite widespread, if temporary, easing of restrictions in the summer of 2020, appetite for this intrusive computer surveillance software barely diminished. In recent months, it has actually increased once again.

Employee monitoring software demand has been 60% higher since March 2021 than it was in 2019. This follows a period of nine months where it had hovered at around a 50% increase.

With cases on the rise around the world and as a second Covid winter approaches, the most recent data shows demand for employee surveillance software in September 2021 was even stronger still, at 66% higher than in 2019. This is the highest it has been since the very first month of the global pandemic, in March 2020.

Chart showing month by month increase in demand for employee surveillance software compared to the 2019 monthly average

Chart showing month-by-month increase in demand for employee surveillance software compared to the 2019 monthly average

Why Are We Tracking Employee Monitoring Software Demand?

Previous international crises have shown that once heightened surveillance measures are introduced they are often never reversed.[2]

The developers of employee surveillance software also do their best to guarantee that their products become permanent fixtures of the modern workplace. Eight in 10 developers of the 10 most in-demand employee monitoring software tools encourage long-term use by offering annual price incentives and lifetime purchasing options. Only the developers of Time Doctor and Crossover do not actively promote annual price incentives on their websites.

The pandemic has led to a huge rise in the range and sophistication of surveillance technologies being adopted around the world and, as remote work looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, invasive employee surveillance may also be here to stay.

“There is something depressing about the idea that full-grown adults must be subjected to routine surveillance of their activities in order to hold the jobs necessary to pay their bills and provide for their families.” – ACLU[3]

As advocates for internet freedom and the right to privacy, we believe this kind of computer surveillance in the workplace should never be normalized. By accepting computer usage monitoring and internet surveillance by employers, the risk is that it will further encroach into all aspects of everyday life.

What Do Employers Want From Monitoring Software?

The following data table shows the ten generic queries related to employment surveillance software with the highest volume of internet searches since social restrictions began around the world, following the declaration of a global pandemic in March 2020.

The percentage difference columns are based on that period’s search volume compared to the average monthly searches in the preceding year.

As a the global pandemic was declared and lockdowns came into force around the world in March 2020, interest in employee surveillance software surged. Over the ensuing months, that demand settled but at a much higher level than before the start of the pandemic.

Since March 2021 however there has been a sustained upswing in demand once more for employee monitoring software.

After a nine month period where demand for the software was 47% higher on average than before the pandemic, it jumped to 61% in March. It has remained on average at 60% higher than in 2019 since then, a 28% increase compared to the preceding nine months.

The market for employee monitoring software existed long before the global pandemic of course and much of the increased interest has been focused around already dominant terms and phrases.

“Employee monitoring software”, for example, was by far the most popular search term before the pandemic and it doubled in volume in March 2020.

What’s most interesting however, is that “how to monitor employees working from home” was the second most popular overall phrase in March, despite being barely used the previous year. The surge in popularity of such an open-ended phrase like this reveals how unprepared many companies were for the abrupt shift to mass home-working.

As might be expected, the phrase has dropped in popularity over time, only to be overtaken by “free employee monitoring software”.

This is a disturbing development as it suggests increasing numbers of employers wishing to spy on their workers who aren’t even prepared to pay for the privilege.

While they weren’t the most popular in absolute terms, queries containing the phrase “working from home” had much bigger relative increases than those relating to “remote work”, a phrase which suggests a more permanent working model.

For example, the query “work from home monitoring tools” increased by almost 5,600% in March 2020 and remains 700% higher over the course of the pandemic to date compared to 2019.

Similarly, “work from home monitoring software” surged almost 4,500% in March 2020 and remains over 1,200% higher over the pandemic period as a whole than in 2019.

The radical shift away from office-working has clearly made employers nervous about a reduction in productivity and its potential impact on their business. Greater computer surveillance in the virtual workplace, however, may actually reduce long-term productivity.

“Research suggests that when companies monitor an employee’s every move, they signal distrust, which can lead to employee disengagement. Disengaged employees are less productive.” – Behavioural Scientist[4]

Employee Monitoring Software

The following data table shows the 10 employee surveillance software tools with the highest volume of internet searches since the pandemic began. The percentage difference columns are based on that month’s search volume compared to the average monthly searches in the preceding year.

Over the initial months of the pandemic, Time Doctor was the most in-demand software at the peak of employer demand in April when interest in the product tripled in comparison to 2019. This caused it to jump from third to the most in-demand employee monitoring software above its previously more popular rivals Hubstaff and FlexiSPY.

Over time however, Hubstaff has re-established its dominant position with the highest overall demand between March and April, at a monthly average 44% higher than before the pandemic.

Overall, our findings show that the employee surveillance market is a very concentrated one, with the top three software products accounting for over 60% of global demand.

The WorkPuls software experienced the highest relative increase in demand, with a 394% rise since the start of the pandemic, followed by DeskTime which experienced a 174% increase.

Not all of these employee monitoring software products offer the same functionalities and some are considerably more invasive than others.

Can A VPN Bypass Employment Monitoring Software?

What is a VPN?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) service is simple software that encrypts your internet connection and routes your internet traffic via a proxy server and changes your IP address in the process. A VPN is typically used to evade monitoring of internet activity, access blocked websites and mobile apps, and prevent man-in-the-middle attacks on public networks.

Should I Use A VPN?

A reliable VPN service will prevent employee monitoring software from logging your browsing history. Rather than capturing your browser’s DNS lookups and the IP addresses of websites you visit, the employee surveillance tools will only be able to record that you visited the proxy server of your VPN service. Any attempts at inspecting traffic will also fail due to encryption.

Despite the effectiveness of a VPN in hiding your browsing history, it’s not possible to obfuscate its use. This will make it clear to your employer that you are trying to evade their surveillance measures, which will likely result in negative consequences.

Nor will a VPN help with other aspects of employee monitoring software, such as keystroke logging, IM monitoring or webcam surveillance.

Employee Surveillance Software Features

The following data table shows the 26 most popular employee surveillance software products and their respective functionalities.

Our analysis of the software revealed the following:

  • 81% offer keystroke logging
  • 61% provide Instant Messaging monitoring
  • 65% send User Action Alerts
  • 38% are capable of remote control takeover

Keystroke Logging

  • Found in 81% of the monitoring applications, keystroke logging is a highly intrusive feature that allows employers to view every click, touch of the keyboard, and conversation of their employees, who may not even realize that it’s happening
  • An example of just how far this can intrude into one’s privacy, the software offered by Work Examiner boasts the ability to “capture the passwords typed in many programs and websites” with their keystroke logging feature.[5]
Work Examiner key logging screenshot

Work Examiner website screenshot promoting key logging features.

Instant Message (IM) Monitoring

  • IM monitoring allows bosses to monitor their team’s private messages on popular social media chat platforms, and even on encrypted platforms such as Whatsapp.
  • More worryingly, products such as Aware’s Spotlight software, offer AI-driven behavioral analysis that tracks changes in mood, tone and attitude across all forms of conversations on a users’ device.[6]
  • “Conversation Health” of their workers are simplistically ranked out of 100, subject to real-time trend insights into how their employees’ conversations are going at any given point.

User Action Alerts

  • A user action alert in the software notifies employers when an undesirable behavior is taking place, allowing them to follow-up with monitoring or intervention if deemed necessary.
  • Teramind’s software, for example, can disable private conversations from continuing if a pre-selected keyword deemed as “inappropriate” triggers an alert.[7]
  • Behavioral alerts can also be set up as to when an employee may be trying to access an “unproductive” website, copy sensitive files or even being idle for a set amount of time.
Screenshot from Teramind website showing Instant Messaging monitoring features

Teramind website screenshot showing Instant Messaging monitoring features.

Remote Control Takeover

  • The most intrusive intervention offered in employee monitoring software. It allows an employer to access their workers’ device(s) and remotely take-over all functionality.
  • This facilitates multiple actions that may (or may not) come as a response to a user action alert such as:
    • Remote installation of software
    • Removal of employee’s access to sensitive company files and documents
    • Remote access to accounts, chat conversations, emails, personal files, calendar, contact list
    • Settings change to enable real-time webcam/audio surveillance of their employees
    • Blocking access to certain websites and applications
    • Shutdown or restart a worker’s device at any given time
  • NetVizor prides itself on its software’s controversial capacity to enable such a takeover without the employee’s permission, and “operate entirely in stealth; that is, it’s nearly invisible to the consumer”.[8]

Screenshot from Netvizor site showing Remote Control Takeover features

Netvizor website screenshot showing Remote Control Takeover features.

Methodology

Using our global monitoring data, we analyzed over 200 terms related to employee monitoring software, taking into account both generic and brand specific queries.

We calculated pre-pandemic demand based on the average monthly internet search volume over the course of 2019. This provided a baseline figure with which we could compare demand during the period of global lockdowns and social restrictions from March 2020 onwards.

About Top10VPN

We’re an internet security and digital rights firm specialized in reviewing VPN services. We analyze and recommend reliable VPNs to visitors from all over the world.

We also research and investigate digital rights, security and privacy matters to raise awareness of issues affecting our audience.

Additional research by Christine O’Donnell

The authors of all our investigations abide by the journalists’ code of conduct.

References

[1] https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A25ef03e6-a4f7-4084-aa25-40807e3d66fa#pageNum=2

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/16/tech/surveillance-privacy-coronavirus-npw-intl/index.html

[3] https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/your-boss-shouldnt-read-your-email

[4] https://behavioralscientist.org/the-paradox-of-employee-surveillance/

[5] https://www.workexaminer.com/features/

[6] https://www.awarehq.com/spotlight

[7] https://www.teramind.co/features/instant-message-monitoring

[8] https://www.netvizor.net/features.htm