Trust Us, We’re Only Spying on You

“Trust us,” they say, as powerful corporations continue to capture more of our own privacy, labor and other civil rights.

Tick-tick-tick … Big Tech’s clock continues to move around and around nonstop to enhance corporate power and profits, but each sweep of its hands also captures more of our own privacy, labor and other civil rights.

At first, each new surge of artificial intelligence and robotic technologies can seem perfectly benign, beneficial … even playful. Take “Spot,” the robotic, four-legged “doggy” that actually has no spots, no endearing puppy eyes, can’t bark, has no tail to wag and is very un-doggy despite its classic doggy name. In fact, this electronic critter is rather creepily nightmarish, but it’s marketed by cute videos, including one of Spot mixing margaritas (admit it, that beats training your real dog to bring your slippers to you).

But you can’t just adopt a Spot at your local animal shelter. Each artificial canine — manufactured by Boston Dynamics, which is owned by Korean auto giant Hyundai Motor Company — sells for about $75,000. So, who’s for these pricey technetronic hounds? Mainly such big corporate outfits as oil refineries, mining operations and electric utilities that want an unblinking eye to monitor and record workers, visitors, intruders, protesters and all others who approach their facilities. Just one more layer of our cycloptic surveillance society.

But the point at which Spot loses all cuteness and turns into a menacing beast of authoritarianism is when it’s turned into a police dog. There’s been quite a public backlash, for example, against the Honolulu police department for deploying one of the robotic canines in a tent city for homeless people. In addition to outrage at the obvious class bias in siccing Spot on the homeless, the public outcry grew hotter when it was revealed that the police had used federal pandemic relief funds to buy their Spot!

As usual, corporate and government officials assure us that this latest tech marvel will be a good dog — it won’t be used to spy on innocent people, be weaponized or otherwise bite us on the butt. Trust us, they say.

If you’re a corporate employee, you know that something unpleasant is afoot when top executives are suddenly issuing statements about how committed they are to the dignity and respect of their employees.

For example, the public relations chief of a global outfit named Teleperformance, one of the world’s largest call centers, was recently going on and on about how they’re “committed to fair practices, equity … ethics, and transparency” in the workplace. He practically pleaded for the world to “trust us,” exclaiming that, “We value our people and their well-being, safety and happiness.” Why did the corporation feel such a desperate need to proclaim its virtue? Because it’s been caught in a nasty scheme to spy on its own workers.

Teleperformance — a $6.7 billion global behemoth that handles customer service calls for Amazon, Apple, Uber, etc. — saves money on overhead by making most of its 380,000 employees around the world work from their own homes. That can be a convenience for many workers, but a new corporate policy first imposed in March on thousands of its workers in Colombia puts an intolerable, “1984”-ish price on that convenience. Teleperformance is pressuring their workers to sign an eight-page addendum to their employee contracts, allowing corporate-controlled video cameras, electronic audio devices and data collection tools to be put in their homes to monitor their actions. “I work in my bedroom,” one employee noted. “I don’t want to have a camera in my bedroom.”

Neither would I, and I doubt that Teleperformance’s $20-million-a-year CEO would allow one in his mansion. Uglier yet, the privacy-obliterating contract mandates that even the children of employees can be spied on at home and any images or audio of children picked up by the surveillance devices can be kept by the corporation. Nonetheless, the Colombian worker signed, because her supervisor said she could lose her job if she refused.

Of course, Teleperformance assures us that the data it collects on children is not shared elsewhere, and Apple also rushed out to state that it treats all of its contract employees “with dignity and respect.” But how do we know that? Trust us, they say. Do you?

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