Employee Surveillance Software Demand up 55% Since Start of Covid-19 Lockdown

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

Key Findings

  • Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by:
    • 87% in April compared with the pre-pandemic average
    • 71% in May compared with pre-pandemic average
  • Most popular surveillance tools: Time Doctor, Hubstaff, FlexiSPY
  • Eight in 10 of the most in-demand companies incentivize long-term use

Introduction

A survey conducted by MIT found that a third of the U.S. workforce has shifted to remote work as a result of the pandemic.

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 programmes risks setting new standards of workplace surveillance and dramatically undermining employees’ right to privacy.

While data from March shows a slight increase in demand, 7% over the full month, it wasn’t until April that the impact of lockdown measures had fully taken effect. In response, demand for employee monitoring tools surged by 87% and remained 71% above the pre-pandemic average in May.

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

The companies behind these programmes 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

What are Employers Looking For?

The following table shows the five queries 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.

Search Phrase April Increase May Increase
Employee monitoring software 108% 70%
Employee monitoring 33% 33%
Net monitoring for employees 50% -19%
How to monitor employees working from home 1,705% 652%
Employee tracking 43% 16%

As lockdowns came into force around the world, largely in the second half of March, interest in employee surveillance software started to increase. Slowly at first and then soaring in April, remaining well elevated during May also.

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 more than doubled in volume in April.

What’s most interesting however, is that “how to monitor employees working from home” was the second most popular overall phrase in April, despite being barely used just the previous month. 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.

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 over 5,000% in April and remained almost 2,500% above pre-pandemic averages in May. Similarly, “work from home monitoring software” surged over 4,000% in April and remained almost 2,200% above the baseline in May.

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

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.

Software Company April Increase May Increase
Time Doctor 202% 134%
Hubstaff 70% 66%
FlexiSPY 4% 28%
ActivTrak 95% 61%
Teramind 169% 122%
DeskTime 333% 235%
SPYERA 50% 82%
WorkTime 30% 9%
Crossover 41% 76%
Kickidler 139% 140%

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 it’s previously more popular rivals Hubstaff and FlexiSPY.

Overall, our findings show that the employee surveillance market is a very concentrated one, with the top 3 tools accounting for almost 60% of the global demand.

WorkPuls experienced the highest relative increase in demand, with a 641% rise in April, followed by DeskTime which experienced a 333% 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.

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.
  • “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.
  • Behavioural 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.

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.”

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 in the subsequent months of March to May 2020.

About Us

Top10VPN.com is a leading VPN review website. We recommend the best VPN services to help protect consumers’ privacy online. We also aim to educate the general public about digital privacy and cybersecurity risks through our free online resources and research.

For more original VPN data and research, please see our COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker, The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2019 and our latest Free VPN Investigation.

Additional research by Christine O’Donnell