China’s White Collar Workers Face Invasive Surveillance By ‘Big Tech’ Overlords
For a Communist nation, the People’s Republic has notoriously weak labor protections. While gig economy workers face tremendous pressure to put in long hours with few breaks, as it turns out, their white-collar cousins are facing similar pressures to put in long hours as well.
Nikkei’s story starts out with testimony from Andy Wang, an IT professional in Hong Kong, whose company has been ratcheting up efforts to monitor its workforce. They call it DiSanZhiYan, or “Third Eye.” The software, installed on the laptop of every employee, monitors all their communications and movements, as well as their browsing activity and software and app usage.
The invasive software would automatically file complaints and every once in a while an employee would be fired. Finally, things like 20-hours work days began to seem impossibly daunting.
Working from their floor in a downtown high-rise, the startup’s hundreds of employees were constantly, uncomfortably aware of being under Third Eye’s intent gaze.
The software would also automatically flag “suspicious behavior” such as visiting job-search sites or video streaming platforms. “Efficiency” reports would be generated weekly, summarizing their time spent by website and application.
“Bosses would check the reports regularly,” Wang said. Farther down the line, that could skew workers’ prospects for promotions and pay rises. They could also be used as evidence when the company looked to fire certain people, he added.
Even Wang himself was not exempt. High-definition surveillance cameras were installed around the floor, including in his office, and a receptionist would check the footage every day to monitor how long each employee spent on their lunch break, he said.
Nikkei’s latest story about these types of abuses at Chinese white collar firms just so happens to follow increased scrutiny of China’s human rights record in the wake of the Biden Administration’s condemnation of Beijing’s “genocidal” treatment of the Uyghers.
While there are limits on how employers can track workers in the US, in China those limitations are virtually non-existent. Many workers have come to accept being tracked.
One Chinese tech firm, Pinduoduo, has garnered special attention for a string of incidents involving young employees,
Pinduoduo is one of the crown jewels of Chinese tech. In just five years, the Shanghai-based e-commerce company grew from zero to 788 million annual active users, surpassing JD.com to become the country’s second-largest e-commerce company with a market valuation of $175 billion, second only to Alibaba.
But it is clear that stunning growth is coming at a cost. Last December, a 22-year-old female employee died after collapsing on her way back home from work around 1:30 a.m. She worked for the company’s grocery shopping unit, Duoduo Grocery, whose services had rapidly grown to encompass 300 Chinese cities as orders leapt during coronavirus-related lockdowns.
Two weeks afterwards, Pinduoduo confirmed one of its engineers jumped to his death. The young worker, a fresh university graduate, checked the company’s messaging app one last time before he took the final leap, according to a former Pinduoduo employee.
The same month, another employee who had posted a photo of a colleague being borne out of the office on a stretcher was identified and fired by the company. In a video posted on Weibo, the Chinese social media site, the fired employee said: “I don’t know if the company identified me through computer monitoring or through information provided by Maimai.” Maimai, the Chinese equivalent of LinkedIn, denied it had provided any user information to a third-party organization.
Here are some other tools used by the government to track employees.
Zhongduantong: “Zhongduantong, a Beijing-based software company, developed a work reporting mobile application that requires workers to check in at designated locations within a certain time frame and upload a picture of the surrounding environment as proof through the app. The use of such real-time tracking apps led to the 200 yuan ($31) fine of a sales manager in the northern city of Shenyang, who was found to be visiting a housing fund center for personal matters during their lunch break, Xinhua News Agency reported in 2018.”
Who Will Watch the Watchmen?: “The AI-driven decision-making process, however, can reinforce bias and discrimination, as machine learning is designed to learn from existing examples. To Jia Kai, associate professor at University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, the crucial question is: To what extent can a human society be managed by programs? “For example, if a worker has a cold today, will the programs be able to detect that and allow more time for the person to finish his job?” Jia asks. The answer is no, he said, at least for now. “What a computer system can capture is only a simplified version of human behaviors.”
Still, as China’s middle class grows increasingly competitive, there will always be plenty of workers willing to accept the risks and drawbacks for a shot at the rewards.