Canadians working from home need protection from employer surveillance, Liberal MP says

Canadians' rapid adoption of remote work during the pandemic has left many of them vulnerable to unlawful surveillance by their employers, says a Liberal MP exploring regulatory changes.

Programs that track worker productivity have expanded rapidly during pandemic

Nearly a quarter of Canadian workers were working from home as of December 2021, according to Statistics Canada. (OPOLJA/Shutterstock)

Canadians' rapid adoption of remote work during the pandemic has left many of them vulnerable to unlawful surveillance by their employers, says a Liberal MP exploring regulatory changes.

Michael Coteau said the pandemic-inspired shift to remote work has resulted in "a drastic increase in the use of surveillance by employers."

On Monday, Coteau announced plans to hold consultations with privacy experts, employers and workers to discuss how Canada could alter its privacy laws as working from home becomes increasingly commonplace.

"I believe that in the age of big data, government has the duty to protect the digital privacy of employees and to deal with the current practice of digital surveillance," he told a news conference in Ottawa.

"For employees, employers could be monitoring your keystrokes and your facial expressions without your consent."

Coteau said his plan is to transform input from the consultations into a private member's bill to address gaps in existing legislation.

His goal, he said, is to create "a comprehensive framework that puts the rights of employees right at the centre."

Coteau, who represents Don Valley East, is a former Ontario MPP and was a leadership candidate for the Ontario Liberals in 2020.

Michael Coteau, MP for Don Valley East. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Protection from intrusive surveillance is enshrined in various laws, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Privacy Act, the Criminal Code and provincial workplace laws.

A recent Canadian report on workplace surveillance during the pandemic described that protection as a "patchwork" and cited numerous exemptions and differing regulations among those various laws.

According to that 2021 report by Ryerson University's Cybersecure Policy Exchange, the practice of workplace surveillance has accelerated and expanded as a result of the pandemic.

"These latest developments in workplace surveillance are fraught with potential privacy and security concerns and raise questions regarding data protection, rights, power and inequities," the report reads.

Employers using surveillance tools may be trying to reduce risk and liability and to protect confidentiality and employee productivity, the authors said.

But the methods they use to pursue those goals raise significant privacy concerns.

Among the reported surveillance tactics noted in the report are desktop and keyboard monitoring programs, which appear to be the most common service offered by employee surveillance software.

Other forms of surveillance include webcam surveillance — which can discreetly capture images through a worker's webcam — facial recognition programs which purport to use artificial intelligence to assess a worker's focus, and GPS and location monitoring.

The report also pointed to "significant research gaps" concerning the use of employee surveillance programs in Canada. 

Literature about the use of these technologies is scarce and has been written primarily in the United States and United Kingdom.

Plan to update privacy laws on hold

The federal government has pursued changes to privacy laws regarding the use of surveillance programs.

A bill that sought to "modernize Canada's existing private sector privacy law" and create a new tribunal to rule on privacy concerns was tabled by the Liberal government in 2020, but it did not pass before the 2021 federal election.

The re-elected government has not yet introduced a new bill with similar proposed changes.

According to Statistics Canada, 23.8 per cent of the country's workforce was working primarily from home as of December 2021.

Experts say they expect the percentage of the workforce operating from home will remain permanently above pre-pandemic levels.