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.
Simon Migliano

UPDATED 03 Nov 2021 to incorporate latest demand data, for June through September 2021. Previously updated in August 2021 and November 2020 with the latest data.

Key Findings

  • Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by:
    • 74% in March 2020 compared with the 2019 monthly average. Demand 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 surveillance tools: Hubstaff, Time Doctor, FlexiSPY
  • Eight in 10 of the most in-demand companies incentivize long-term use

Introduction

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 tools to ensure their staff work effectively from home.

From covert webcam access to random screenshot monitoring, these products are capable of recording almost everything an employee does on their computer.

The rapid increase of these invasive programs risks setting new standards of workplace surveillance and dramatically undermining employees’ right to privacy.

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

Despite widespread, if temporary, easing of restrictions in the summer of 2020 followed, demand for these intrusive tools barely diminished. In recent months, it has actually increased once again.

Demand has been 60% higher than it was in 2019 since March 2021 following a period of nine months where it had hovered at around a 50% increase.

With cases on the rise around the world and a second Covid winter approaches, the most recent data shows demand for employee surveillance tools in September 2021 was as high as 66% compared to 2019. This is the highest it has been since the very first month of the 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

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

The companies behind these programs also do their best to guarantee that their products become permanent fixtures of the modern workplace. Eight out of the 10 most in-demand companies encourage long-term use by offering annual price incentives and lifetime purchasing options. Only 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 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]

What are Employers Looking For?

The following table shows the ten generic queries 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 surveillance tools.

After a nine month period where demand was 47% higher on average than before the pandemic, it jumped to 61% in March. Demand 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 surveillance software existed long before the global pandemic of course and much of the increased demand was 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 staff 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 surveillance, 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 Surveillance Tools

The following table shows the 10 employee surveillance companies with the highest volume of internet searches since lockdowns 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 option at the peak of employer interest in April when interest in the tool tripled in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. This caused it to jump from third to the most in-demand tool 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 tools accounting for over 60% of the global demand.

WorkPuls 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 tools offer the same functionalities and some are considerably more invasive than others.

What can employee surveillance tools actually do?

The following table shows the 26 most popular employee surveillance tools and their respective functionalities.

Our analysis of 26 of the most popular employee monitoring companies 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 surveillance tools, keystroke logging is a highly intrusive feature that allows employers to view every click, touch of the keyboard, and conversation of their staff, who may not even realise 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

Screenshot from Work Examiner website promoting key logging features.

Instant Message (IM) Monitoring

  • IM monitoring allows bosses to monitor their staff’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 tool, 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 notifies employers when an undesirable behaviour is occurring, allowing them to follow-up with monitoring or intervention if deemed necessary.
  • For example, Teramind’s software 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

Screenshot from Teramind website showing Instant Messaging monitoring features.

Remote Control Takeover

  • The most intrusive intervention offered in employee monitoring products. 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 staff
    • 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

Screenshot from Netvizor site showing Remote Control Takeover features.

Methodology

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

We calculated pre-pandemic demand based on the average monthly internet search volume between March 2019 and February 2020 inclusive. This provided a baseline figure with which we could compare demand during the period of global lockdowns and social restrictions in the subsequent months of March 2020 to June 2021.

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

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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