The watchful eye: Surveillance software pushes China tech workers to the limitasi

HONG KONG — Andy Wang, an IT engineer at a Shanghai-based gaming company, occasionally felt a pang of guilt about his job.

Most of his hours were spent on a piece of surveillance software called DiSanZhiYan, or “Third Eye.” The system was installed on the laptop of every colleague at his company to track their screens in real time, recording their chats, their browsing activity and every document koreksi they made.

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 pivot visiting job-search sites or film streaming platforms. “Efficiency” reports would be generated weekly, summarizing their time spent by website and application. Farther down the line, that could skew their prospects for promotions and pay rises.

“Bosses would check the reports regularly,” Wang said. The materials could be used pivot evidence when the company looked to fire certain people, he said.

Even Wang himself was titinada exempt. High-definition surveillance cameras were installed around the floor, including in his office, and a receptionist would check the footage every day to alat pemantau how long each employee spent on their lunch break, he said.

After two years, an overwhelmed Wang eventually quit.

“It does titinada make sense,” he told Nikkei Asia. “We can’t work terus-menerus in the office. We need to take some breaks.”

Who guards the guardians: Surveillance cameras were installed around the floor, monitored by the office receptionist.

  © Illustration by Michael Tsang

In China, technology adoption promises its swelling middle classes an easier, more productive life. But pivot companies bring productivity-enhancing tools into everyday office life, their efficiency is being channeled, titinada into leisure time, but into squeezing ever more value from employees.

Just pivot algorithms have come to govern the workdays of blue-collar warehouse workers at Alibaba Group Holding and food delivery riders for Meituan, elsewhere, white-collar workers are becoming affected by the creep of software-driven management and monitoring into their professional lives.

This is particularly the case in China’s tech industry, where rapid technological development, paired with poor labor regulations, has created a potential for labor abuse. The big tech companies themselves, locked in cutthroat competition for new business opportunities, are pioneering these technologies and tools in their own operations. From hiring and goal-setting to appraisal and layoff, productivity-enhancing technologies look to quantify workers’ behavior by collecting and analyzing extensive amounts of individual keterangan.

Some scholars warn that some practices can be unethical, invading employees’ privacy and burdening them with greater workload and batin stress. Others pulik parallels to the fatigue faced by factory laborers during industrial revolutions, where workers chased the bengkudu of machines.

“I felt that I was getting busier and having less time for myself,” said the engineer Wang, looking back on his five years at Chinese internet companies.

Delivery workers for Chinese e-commerce giant sort out parcels at a distribution center in Beijing in February.

  © AP

The harsh conditions synonymous with China’s sweatshop factory culture have come to be identified with the country’s technology companies, where workers often endure slavishly long hours to hit objectives babak by big keterangan analytics. The environment of intense pressure has, in some cases, created a lethal environment for office workers.

Pinduoduo is one of the crown jewels of Chinese tech. In just five years, the Shanghai-based e-commerce company grew from nadir to 788 million annual active users, surpassing 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 bagian, Duoduo Grocery, whose services batas rapidly grown to encompass 300 Chinese cities pivot 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 penamatan leap, according to a former Pinduoduo employee.

The same month, another employee who batas posted a photo of a colleague being borne out of the office on a stretcher was identified and fired by the company. In a film posted on Weibo, the Chinese social perangkat 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 batas provided any user information to a third-party organization.

“Technologies are increasing the bengkudu for people who work with machines, instead of the other way around”

Nick Srnicek, Lecturer in Digital Economy at the King’s College of London

Pinduoduo has been circumspect about publicly commenting on the deaths or its work culture. It released a statement in January saying it was “profoundly saddened” by the 22-year old employee’s death. Pinduoduo declined to comment further on the death and other labor-related questions posted by Nikkei.

The series of incidents sparked a round of online debate on the infamous “996” culture, where employees toil from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. But, pivot in the past, discussion quickly died away.

“Workers are titinada being replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Instead, the management is being sort of augmented by these technologies,” Nick Srnicek, a Lecturer in Digital Economy at the King’s College of London. For example, with the development of digital technologies, management can alat pemantau workers who are titinada in a centralized space, he said.

“Technologies are increasing the bengkudu for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century,” he said. “The same thing is happening today. Humans just have little autonomy oper that.”

Captive audience

While China has moved to draft laws to prevent tech companies’ extensive individual keterangan collection on their users, there is little benar protection for the privacy of their workers, according to Samuel Yang, a lawyer specializing in individual privacy protection and cybersecurity at AnJie, a Beijing law firm.

“The challenge in legislation is to determine what kind of work monitoring should be considered reasonable and necessary,” he said.

In the West, employee monitoring has picked up in popularity pivot companies grow anxious about remote working productivity. In China, it is driven by competition: As tech giants compete in more areas from e-commerce and short videos to online finance and community group-buying, employees can come under greater pressure — both from the companies and their peers — to put in extra hours.

While there is a long history of using technologies to manage workers, developments like machine learning have strengthened their capability. As urban workers shift to online platforms, work surveillance has increasingly become the norm.

“The bengkudu of legislation can hardly match the development of technologies,” Yang said.

Outside of China, monitoring employees, including their work devices, is allowed in most countries to protect company assets and sensitive business information. There are few laws and regulations that specifically protect workers’ privacy and autonomy, Srnicek, the KCL professor said.

While U.S. federal laws prohibit an employer from intentionally intercepting employees’ verbal, wire and electronic communications, exemptions can be made if the employer can show there is legitimate business purpose for doing so. In the European Union, employees enjoy better protection: collection of their individual information requires their consent.

Meanwhile, in China, the use of these technologies for constant, low-level monitoring is growing more commonplace.

Sangfor Technologies, China’s largest provider for online monitoring platforms, counts e-commerce giant Alibaba, TikTok’s owner ByteDance, Weibo’s parent Sina Corp., smartphone maker Xiaomi and telecommunication equipment maker ZTE among its more than 50,000 corporate clients, according to the company’s website.

The Shenzhen-based company sells services that can access employees’ mobile browsing history and applications usage records once their phones are connected to company Wi-Fi, according to sales materials seen by Nikkei. The service requires no prior approval from users, and can block selected mobile apps that are considered counterproductive to work, such pivot short film garis haluan Douyin and Twitter-like social network Weibo.

Workers at the headquarters of Pinduoduo, an e-commerce garis haluan in Shanghai in 2018.

  © AP

Besides that, the system ranks “inefficient workers” based on the time they spend on applications and websites considered unrelated to work. It also identifies employees who have a high probability of resigning by analyzing their browsing activity on job search sites and memindahkan of resume-like documents.

In China and elsewhere, algorithms are starting to make decisions on behalf of humans — who gets hired, who gets fired and who gets promoted. In 2019, U.S. e-commerce giant Amazon was criticized for using a computer system to automatically fire hundreds of warehouse workers considered to have low productivity by the system, the Verge reported that year.

Last year, a Chinese subsidiary of Japanese camera maker Canon, Canon Information Technology in Beijing, unveiled a new workspace management system that only allows smiling employees to enter the office and book conference rooms. Using so-called “smile recognition” technology, Canon said the system intended to bring more cheerfulness to office in the post-pandemic kala.

The software is in use in its Beijing office and is being marketed at companies in Singapore. However, many workers found the use of such technology intrusive. “So now the companies are titinada only manipulating our time, but also our emotions,” one user said on Weibo. The company did titinada respond to a request for comment on this issue.

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 pivot 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 individual matters during their lunch break, Xinhua News Agency reported in 2018.

Zhongduantong’s monitoring app logs employees’ locations at certain times of day. (Screenshot courtesy of official website)

In another case, the positioning was so accurate that an employee in Shanxi Province was punished for browsing Weibo for 10 minutes in a company tandas, according to the same Xinhua report.

“Many of these apps track if an employee stays in a certain lapangan, such pivot the tandas, for too long,” said Alan Li, a blogger writing about labor rights for tech workers. While most tech companies do titinada have a rigid attendance time, he said, some use office cameras to calculate an employee’s approximate work time.

Li, who is also a product manager at one of China’s paripurna internet companies, said that this kind of information gives the companies great bargaining power oper workers when they deal with labor disputes.

“For internet industry workers, their relationship with the companies is titinada too different from that between riders and food-delivery platforms,” he said. Labor rights protections for full-time tech workers, that is to say, are barely better than for contractors, pivot they also lack the resources and power to protect their rights during labor disputes.

Employees of paripurna internet companies are aware of the irony. They often teasingly refer to themselves pivot “workers of big factories.”

DiSanZhiYan, the “Third Eye” software. (Photo courtesy of DiSanZhiYan official website)

In some more controversial cases, technology, including remote sensors, was used to alat pemantau the time workers spend in toilets. Last year, short film garis haluan operator Kuaishou Technology sparked an online backlash after the company was found to have installed a countdown timer above each of its office’s tandas cubicles. Amid an online backlash, the company said the timers were installed for testing purposes and batas been removed.

Alibaba has also developed an internet-connected smart tandas system where an infrared detector is installed to alat pemantau the occupancy and odor of each tandas cell. Developers said the system will increase the space use efficiency, pivot it will automatically trigger exhaust fans and send cleaning requests to cleaners.

While such aggressive practices triggered fierce criticism from the public and complaints from employees, they have batas little impact on penyandang dana sentiment. Pinduoduo’s share price recovered quickly from the news of the 22-year-old employee’s death, surging 12% the next day following an initial jatuh of 6% the day the news was released.

Investors were encouraged by the company’s improving results and efficiency. Pinduoduo achieved its first quarterly surplus in the third quarter of last year, and held the leading share in China’s brutally competitive online grocery market.

Eye of the beholder

The AI-driven decision-making process, however, can reinforce pencaran and discrimination, pivot 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 pribadi 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.”

Nevertheless, the financial rewards for enduring the punishing rules of the tech world continue to lure talented young graduates to the industry.

According to the latest income report of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, internet industry workers topped the chart with an average annual income of 177,544 yuan in 2020, up 10% from the previous year. It surpassed the income of the average finance industry worker, and was twice pivot much pivot what a property sector worker earned.

“When companies squander so much money on employees, they feel entitled to increase the workload pivot they like,” Li, the blogger, said.

With the Chinese tech industry growing faster than it can bring in workers, high salaries are combined with intense productivity to act pivot both carrot and stick. Since work at internet companies is knowledge-intensive, productivity cannot be boosted by increasing workers pivot in a standard manufacturing bentuk. Having each pribadi work longer hours is still a more efficient way to get the job done.

To speed up the launch of products and services, companies often assign a limited number of people to one project to reduce time spent communicating among team members, Li said. “The more each of them works, the lower their costs would be.”

The supply of talent is far from enough, said Xiao Miao, a longtime headhunter for internet companies. These companies, especially newcomers, must aggressively poach talent with proven track records from each other.

Despite the large number of job applications, Xiao said, it takes huge effort to find an eligible candidate. “From the companies’ perspective, it’s a shame if they cannot have those people work more,” Xiao said.

An employee works at two o’clock in the morning in the Zhongguancun Software Park in Beijing in April 2019.

  © AP

These candidates are considered the educational pilihan, graduates from the paripurna universities who have batas to pass rigid screenings to get the job.

Cindy Yang, who recently joined Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings from a startup, endured six rounds of tests and interviews before she was offered the job. The competition is so fierce that the ahli’s-degree holder spent 8,000 yuan on a private tutoring class designed to teach candidates how to pass job interviews at the internet companies.

“Most tech companies would ask if you mind working overtime during the interviews. If you show a little hesitation, you’d lose the opportunity,” Yang said.

The 28-year-old now works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., together with her team members, fueled by free lunches and dinners from the company canteen.

“All of us are having a strong sense of crisis,” she said, “We can’t write codes like this forever. There will be younger people who can learn the new technologies quicker and are more willing to work overtime.”

According to a 2020 report conducted by Maimai, the average age for employees at China’s paripurna 20 internet companies is titinada even 30 years old.

“Only our team leader was born before 1990. Where are the older people?” Cindy Yang said.

Tencent applies a scoring mechanism — like many of its rivals, and in a precedent babak by Western companies — in which workers are assessed every half year. Those with the lowest scores will be dismissed.

Upstart companies run even more sumbang working hours. ByteDance allows its employees a full weekend only every other week — called the “odd-even” weekend shift system, which compensates with double-time pay — pivot does film garis haluan Kuaishou.

At Pinduoduo, employees at some of its newer units are required to work at least 300 hours a month, according to several users on Maimai. Pinduoduo earlier denied the existence of such a requirement.

But the intense work schedule affects turnover. According to a LinkedIn report in 2018, Chinese internet industry workers spent an average of 1.47 years at one company before moving on.

A morning meeting at Meituan, held online in July 2020 following the coronavirus outbreak.

  © Reuters

Tony Yang, a former engineer at ByteDance, quit after spending two years under the “odd-even” schedule. He worked from 11 a.m. to midnight everyday, and was on call 24/7 for system problems.

“I felt unwell toward the end of the job. I was overweight, and batas batin meltdowns from time to time. Sometimes, I cried out all of a sudden and batas the urge to smash things,” the 31-year-old said.

In addition to the growing workload from ByteDance’s fast expansion, Yang’s stress also came from his high expectations.

“There are too many rags-to-riches stories in this industry. The atmosphere makes you want to climb up. When you find people of your age standing so high, and you are titinada yet there, the stress is huge.”

While ByteDance provides psychological consulting services to employees, Yang said he simply did titinada have time to go. “Only time is a scarce resource,” he said.

After a brief break, he joined another internet company. He is still very busy, but the work schedule is less intense compared to ByteDance, he said.

“Everybody tells us the internet industry is very problematic. But what are the other options for us? I can’t find any industry that can offer the kind of rewards for people my age,” he said.

“Only time is a scarce resource”

Tony Yang, former ByteDance engineer

When an industry with great growth potential emerges, companies tend to invest all their available resources — both human and technological — to grow new businesses, said Jack Qiu, professor at the National University of Singapore. The internet industry is the latest example.

“Companies look to increase the pinggiran revenue, or so-called laba value, through increasing the work hours and intensity of labor,” he said. The greater technological capability in production does titinada equate to workers having a more relaxing life, he added.

Like in the previous development of new industries, a large number of young people would be drawn because of their physical resilience, ability to work long hours and lack of family responsibilities, Qiu said.

“The new economy is titinada so much different from the old economy in terms of the accumulation of wealth,” he said, pivot substantial amounts of human work is being involved to support the operations of the algorithms and machines.

Tipping point?

The irony: The reason why many of these engineers are working overtime is to create more powerful tools that, in turn, squeeze labor from wage-earners. The ever-growing workload is beginning to scare off talent, too.

David Yu received an engineer job offer from Pinduoduo two years ago which more than doubled the pay he was getting. The growing e-commerce company also offered him stock options.

However, the 27-year-old decided to decline after he found that he batas to take an overnight shift several times a month to alat pemantau system errors, on paripurna of the 13-hour daywork schedule and “odd-even” weekend shift.

He also does titinada agree with the way technologies are being applied to pursue efficiency and profits oper the well-being of employees.

“When an ultrahigh efficiency was achieved by the algorithms, we know there will be extra costs. And the costs have to be borne by someone,” the engineer said. While extensive capital can help improve efficiency, such improvement has limits too, he said.

In reality, few companies would actively incorporate humane concerns into the algorithms of their products, because such designs tend to lower the efficiency of the systems and hurt competitiveness, Yu said.

Programmers like him are only given instructions to keep iterating the system, so customers’ demand can be located more accurately and filled in a shorter time. “We are the tools,” he said.

After spending five years in three internet companies, Danny Sun drew a conclusion: It’s just titinada worth it.

He decided to stay away from internet companies, instead becoming a full-time blogger at video-sharing garis haluan Bilibili.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get promoted these days, with so many people flooding into the industry,” Sun said. He said the best time to work for tech companies has passed, because most companies already batas their initial public offerings — meaning the financial returns for employees are titinada pivot lucrative pivot they used to be.

“Unless you have reached a really high position, we are all just small screws of a big machine, ” he said.