While we have all been focused on facial recognition as the poster child for AI ethics, another concerning form of AI has quietly emerged and rapidly advanced during COVID-19: AI-enabled employee surveillance at home. Though we are justifiably worried about being watched while out in public, we are now increasingly being observed in our homes.

Surveillance of employees is hardly new. This started in earnest with “scientific management” of workers led by Frederick Taylor near the beginning of the 20th century, with “time and motion” studies to determine the optimal way to perform a job. Through this, business management focused on maximizing control over how people performed work. Application of this theory extends to the current day. A 2019 report from the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center states that algorithmic management introduces new forms of workplace control, where the technological regulation of workers’ performance is granular, scalable, and relentless. There is no slacking off while you are being watched.

Implementation of such surveillance had existed primarily in factory or warehouse settings, such as at Amazon. Recently, the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported that AI is being used on construction sites. These AI-based systems can offer benefits to employees by using computer vision to check whether employees are wearing appropriate safety gear, such as goggles and gloves, before giving them access to a danger area. However, there is also a more nefarious use case. The report said the AI system with facial recognition was hooked up to CCTV cameras and able to tell whether an employee was doing their job or “loitering,” smoking or using a smartphone.

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