Contract lawyers face a growing invasion of surveillance programs that monitor their work

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/11/11/lawyer-facial-recognition-monitoring/

“Camille Anidi, an attorney on Long Island, quickly understood the flaws of the facial recognition software her employers demanded she use when working from home. The system often failed to recognize her face or mistook the Bantu knots in her hair as unauthorized recording devices, forcing her to log back in sometimes more than 25 times a day.

When she complained, she said, her bosses brushed it off as a minor technical issue, though some of her lighter-skinned colleagues told her they didn’t have the same problem — a common failing for some facial recognition systems, which have been shown to perform worse for people of color.

So after each logout, Anidi gritted her teeth and did what she had to do: Re-scan her face from three angles so she could get back to a job where she was often expected to review 70 documents an hour.

“I want to be able to do the work and would love the money, but it’s just that strain: I can’t look left for too long, I can’t look down, my dog can’t walk by, or I get logged out,” she said. “Then the company is looking at me like I’m the one delaying!”

Facial recognition systems have become an increasingly common element of the rapid rise in work-from-home surveillance during the coronavirus pandemic. Employers argue that they offer a simple and secure way to monitor a scattered workforce.

But for Anidi and other lawyers, they serve as a dehumanizing reminder that every second of their workday is rigorously probed and analyzed: After verifying their identity, the software judges their level of attention or distraction and kicks them out of their work networks if the system thinks they’re not focused enough.

Contract attorneys such as Anidi have become some of America’s first test subjects for this enhanced monitoring, and many are reporting frustrating results, saying the glitchy systems make them feel like a disposable cog with little workday privacy.

But the software has also become a flash point for broader questions about how companies treat their remote workforces, especially those, like contract attorneys, whose short-term gigs limit their ability to push for change. The attorneys also worry that it could become the new norm as more jobs are automated and analyzed: If the same kinds of law firms that have litigated worker protections and labor standards are doing it, why wouldn’t everyone else?

“There’s always going to be a desire to control more of the workplace, just because you can … and because the cost of all the heavy-handedness comes down on the employee,” said Amy Aykut, a contract attorney in the D.C. area.

The monitoring is a symptom of “these pervasive employer attitudes that take advantage of these technologies to continue these really vicious cycles … that treat employees as commodities,” she said. “The irony in this situation is that it’s attorneys, who traditionally advocate for employee rights or justice when they’re made aware of intrusions like these…”