reportMay 19 2021

The Constant Boss

Labor Under Digital Surveillance

Aiha Nguyen

In The Constant Boss, author Aiha Nguyen—Data & Society’s Labor Futures Program Director—chronicles the crucial yet underrepresented perspectives of workers in the debate about workplace surveillance and data privacy, especially (primarily) low-wage and hourly workers who are subject to workplace surveillance and algorithmic management.

The report finds that workers experience speedups, employment insecurity, a shifting of risks and costs from employers to workers, and an exacerbation of racial profiling and bias. This results in a power imbalance wherein workers have little insight into how they’re tracked or how their data is used, making it difficult to voice concerns. Nguyen speaks with workers, labor unions, worker rights organizations, privacy scholars, and privacy rights organizations to both record new challenges to workers from increased surveillance, and to contextualize these within a long history of racial capitalism.

“Workers currently don’t have power over the technology that directs their jobs, nor do they retain rights over their data in the workplace. This creates a tremendous and invisible power imbalance between workers and companies,” writes Nguyen.

Workers’ perspectives are integral to discussions around data protection and privacy, argues Nguyen. Policymakers must build robust data protections that empower workers, not just consumers, and also broaden their understanding of algorithmic harms beyond bias and discrimination. Effective worker data protection and privacy can enable workers to advocate for more rights in the workplace, including protections against exploitation, wage theft, arbitrary and aggressive disciplinary action, retaliation, and discriminatory and biased practices.


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