Earlier this year, in the north Indian city of Chandigarh, sanitation workers of the Panchkula Municipal Corporation went on strike against a wristwatch.
They said the device — supplied by their employers — tracked their movements, filmed them with a camera and had a microphone to record conversations. The watch, the low-wage workers said, fined them for taking breaks, pushed them to work more hours, and even put the onus of the maintenance and rent of the watches on them.
The protest led the Municipal Corporation to promise to discontinue the use of trackers.
And then came a pandemic. “We cannot protest as we did before the lockdown,” said Krishan Chadha, the head of Sanitation Workers Union in Chandigarh. “[Now] they threaten to fire us if we refuse to wear it. It feels like bonded labour more than ever.”
Sanjay Sharma, a 35-year-old plumber from Mumbai who spoke to VICE News but asked that his name be changed for his protection, works for an online home services company in Mumbai. Before the pandemic, his employers used a GPS tracker and facial recognition to keep an eye on him. The novel coronavirus has brought with it additional features: temperature readings, which are disclosed not merely to his employers but also to customers. “I had to buy my own digital thermometer because it’s mandatory,” Sharma said.
In another case, the restaurant chain Behrouz Biryani, which delivers to 35 Indian towns, is giving out names of all their employees along with their temperature readings. Raghav Joshi, the CEO of the India business unit of Rebel Foods, which owns Behrouz Biryani, told VICE News this was done to ensure “customer confidence” in the food they order. “As far as we know, we’re the only ones doing this. We are certain that if we share this data transparently with customers, it will be more helpful for them to be confident about us,” he said.
Revealing a list of names in a country where suspected carriers of the disease are attacked by mobs raises clear safety concerns, but Joshi said they “haven’t faced any unfortunate cases [of stigma] yet.” He added, “I don’t think that will happen in our case because if the person’s temperature is high, we will ensure they are at home and we take care of their medical needs.”
Zomato, a popular online food delivery aggregator in India, told VICE News that measures like giving out temperature readings on the order live tracking screen of the app and website, are a part of “WHO [World Health Organization] practices”. Other measures include compulsory installation of India’s biggest government-initiated contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, which itself faces privacy issues.
“The current times have shifted [food] industry’s focus towards safety and hygiene,” Mohit Sardana, COO, Food Delivery of Zomato, said. “It was important for us to add as many safety layers as we could so that food could safely reach our customers.”
The need for contact tracing is gaining momentum across the world to detect and track infected patients, along with those they come in contact with. Following the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on public health surveillance, countries across the world have adopted the measure, sometimes through apps or physical trackers. Their merit and effectiveness remain debatable, with privacy advocates warning against the abuse of data.
In a VICE interview on April 6, Siddharth Deb, the policy and parliamentary counsel at the Delhi-based digital rights non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), said contact tracing in India doesn’t fall within a valid legal framework that respects privacy. In such cases, data collection “can happen in an excess or opaque manner”. “[This will] make it difficult to audit these activities,” he said.
Workplace surveillance is not new to the pandemic. “Earlier, some of these measures were justified in the name of productivity or efficiency or performance, which was always problematic,” Urvashi Aneja, the co-founder and director of Goa-based policy and advocacy collective, Tandem Research, said. “Now, a number of technologies are being legitimised in the name of public health safety.”
In a publicly-available worker surveillance resource, Aneja’s Tandem Research keeps a tab on the many technologies coming into play under the pandemic.
Early in June, Nilay Sheth, the CEO of Vadodara-based Nivida Web Solutions Private Ltd, launched a temperature sensor and motion app called ‘Unlock 2020’. It functions as an attendance machine, access control and reads employee temperature.
"You can see the history of the employees and everyday information, too,” Sheth told VICE News. “The temperature reader, at the same time, bypasses hacks like people suppressing their fever by popping pills. The next step is to incorporate contact tracing that uses Bluetooth and gives details of the employees’ route, conveyance taken and so on.”
In May 2020, the Technology Development Board, a part of Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology, approved a project that developed a low-cost Artificial Intelligence solution that uses a video analytics platform for real-time alerts.
It also combines a low-cost thermal camera that detects temperature in crowded places.
“This is essentially the gold rush for surveillance tech companies right now,” said Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, associate counsel at IFF. “All is justified as necessary,”
But worker surveillance is also known to exacerbate inequalities. In China, the Uighur community face cultural erasure through surveillance and predictive technology. In the US, it has deepened racial divides.
In India, experts and activists are calling out governments and private players for disproportionate monitoring of especially low-wage and gig workers. “If the temperature check is made voluntary, people like you and I can kick up a fuss. But for low-wage workers, that option doesn’t exist. If they don’t say yes, they lose their livelihood,” said Aneja.
Mukhopadhyay said that the inequality is palpable in the surveillance imposed on blue-collar and white-collar workers. “For the white collar, you see measures like CCTV cameras, key-logging softwares, email monitoring and so on,” she said. “For blue-collar workers, the measures are more invasive like wearable tracking devices.”
In Chandigarh, the protesting workers are contract labourers who are also Dalits: those belonging to castes whose members were previously considered untouchables. Other surveillance measures, like the nationwide digitisation of identity through Aadhaar, were criticised for marginalising communities like sex workers and gender minorities.
The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019—which sets rules for how personal data should be processed and stored, along with the fundamental right to personal information—is stuck at the Lok Sabha (lower house) of the Indian Parliament. The bill, experts say, is key to maintaining the dignity of labour.
Throughout it all, digital experts are most worried about one big question: What happens post-pandemic?
A key solution is to include a sunset clause to the bill, or an expiration date to all forms of surveillance.
On June 4, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport (IFAT), which includes transport and delivery workers with companies such as ride-hailing service Uber and Zomato, raised concerns over the mandated use of Aarogya Setu.
“Snooping on an individual, accessing their contacts, camera, messages are a valid concern for all to consider,” it said.
Aneja predicts that the focus and commodification of health data will eventually manifest in a Black Mirror-esque “rating system”, in which a worker is scored on the basis of health parameters. “Disease propensity or probability will be factored in, and it will be done through algorithmic systems. It will be like a health scorecard for workers,” she said. “It’s a grim future.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.