Data at Work

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"Surveillance and Digital Control at Work"

A research project on the datafication of work with a focus on Europe, led by Cracked Labs, together with AlgorithmWatch, Jeremias-Adams Prassl, UNI Europa and GPA, and supported by the Austrian Arbeiterkammer.

Project outline

Data collection is becoming ubiquitous, including at work. Systems that constantly record data about activities and behaviors in the workplace can quickly turn into devices for extensive monitoring and control, deeply affecting the rights, freedoms and bargaining power of employees. Opportunities and risks are not distributed equally. While employers optimize their business processes, workers are being rated, ranked, pressured and disciplined.

Companies use this recorded data to monitor behavior, assess performance and, increasingly, to direct tasks, manage workers and make automated decisions about them. More broadly, they exploit large amounts of data to unilaterally reorganize and reshape work. The technical systems in place are often complex and opaque, and the pace of development is fast. How do companies process employee data across different sectors and types of work including call centers, warehouses, retail, delivery, mobile care, manufacturing and knowledge work?

The project examines and maps how companies use personal data on (and against) employees in order to empower unions, academics and policymakers to better understand and navigate the datafication of work. Based on previous German-language research, it investigates and documents the systems and technologies that process personal data in the workplace, from human resource management to cybersecurity, from location tracking to workflow automation, from SAP to Microsoft 365. It identifies key developments and issues relevant to worker rights and aims to create a taxonomy of data practices at work. The project results in a series of case studies and research reports, complemented by web materials and infographics, as well as in outreach activities directed at the target groups.

Key research questions

  • How do companies process personal data on employees and how do they use it across different sectors and types of work?
  • What kind of software systems, platforms, technologies, devices and cloud services are available on the market?
  • How do these systems utilize worker data for behavioral control, performance monitoring and automated decision-making?
  • What are key developments and major drivers? What are key issues for workers and their representatives?
  • More broadly, how does personal data processing affect the power imbalance between employers and workers?
  • Underlying questions include: Who shapes the digital transformation of work? And who benefits?

The project results in several smaller and larger publications, including case studies and reports to be published online over the course of 2023 and 2024.

Our research draws from five main sources. First, it investigates the functionalities, data practices and inner workings of systems that are available on the market and used by employers, based on an examination of software documentation and other corporate materials. Second, it reviews, summarizes and contextualizes a rich body of existing literature, including quantitative research and surveys that describe how these systems affect workers. Third, it builds on a close collaboration with the project partners and wider networks, who contribute both policy expertise and on-the-ground experiences in several European countries. Fourth, it is based on Cracked Labs' previous German-language research on surveillance and digital control at work, which included interview-based case studies. Fifth, it relies on the principal researcher's rich expertise on the data industry and on his experiences training work councils on data protection and privacy for several years.

While a comprehensive analysis of legal perspectives and realities for workers across Europe is beyond the scope of this project, AlgorithmWatch will explore the legal frameworks and key issues in four European regions based on expert interviews.