The Datafication of Employment: How Surveillance and Capitalism Are Shaping Workers’ Futures without Their Knowledge

Source: Sam Adler-Bell and Michelle Miller, The Century Foundation, December 19, 2018

We live in a surveillance society. Our every preference, inquiry, whim, desire, relationship, and fear can be seen, recorded, and monetized by thousands of prying corporate eyes. Researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to map the contours of this new economy—and reckon with its implications for equity, democracy, freedom, power, and autonomy.

For consumers, the digital age presents a devil’s bargain: in exchange for basically unfettered access to our personal data, massive corporations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook give us unprecedented connectivity, convenience, personalization, and innovation. Scholars have exposed the dangers and illusions of this bargain: the corrosion of personal liberty, the accumulation of monopoly power, the threat of digital redlining, predatory ad-targeting, and the reification of class and racial stratification.3 But less well understood is the way data—its collection, aggregation, and use—is changing the balance of power in the workplace.

This report offers some preliminary research and observations on what we call the “datafication of employment.” Our thesis is that data-mining techniques innovated in the consumer realm have moved into the workplace. Firms who’ve made a fortune selling and speculating on data acquired from consumers in the digital economy are now increasingly doing the same with data generated by workers. Not only does this corporate surveillance enable a pernicious form of rent-seeking—in which companies generate huge profits by packaging and selling worker data in marketplace hidden from workers’ eyes—but also, it opens the door to an extreme informational asymmetry in the workplace that threatens to give employers nearly total control over every aspect of employment.

The report begins with an explanation of how a regime of ubiquitous consumer surveillance came about, and how it morphed into worker surveillance and the datafication of employment. The report then offers principles for action for policymakers and advocates seeking to respond to the harmful effects of this new surveillance economy. The final sections concludes with a look forward at where the surveillance economy is going, and how researchers, labor organizers, and privacy advocates should prepare for this changing landscape ….