Managed by Bots: surveillance of gig-economy workers

WIE’s recent ‘Managed by Bots’ report demonstrates that opaque algorithms dictate almost every aspect of gig economy employees’ work, offering them limited visibility or avenues for redress when a decision is made about them.

By EDRi · January 19, 2022

Millions of people worldwide work in the gig economy for companies like Uber, Deliveroo, Bolt, and Just Eat. They are subjected to unprecedented surveillance from these employers. To counter the dehumanising surveillance employers are subjecting workers to and the power imbalance this entrenches, Privacy International (PI) have partnered with Worker Info Exchange (WIE) and App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) to protect the rights of gig economy workers.

PI, together with WIE and ADCU, have launched a joint campaign titled “Managed by bots” and talked to a number of Uber private hire drivers to learn more about what it’s like to have an algorithm as their boss. The campaign tells the stories of drivers’ who just want to understand why their employers took certain decisions about their employment. Some decisions had onerous consequences. These interviews highlight the opacity of the decision making process, problems with the apps’ facial recognition technology systems, and fears that the worker’s account could be suspended at any time, without explanation.

According to WIE’s report, several gig economy employers seemed to be reluctant to fully comply with their data protection obligations. For example, some companies did not provide all the data requested through data subject access requests (DSARs). WIE have been unable to obtain information about how algorithms calculate scores that are then used to prioritise the dispatch of journeys to private hire drives. Furthermore, to obtain data from some companies, WIE had to go to great lengths and even file numerous complaints with the relevant data protection authorities for the companies to act upon their requests.

These findings depict a worrying landscape: suggesting that the process of getting data from gig economy platforms often proves time consuming and hugely complex, even though the legal framework is supposed to be designed to facilitate such requests and make it an easy, accessible tool for anyone to use. 

PI, WIE, and ADCU are concerned that gig economy companies might not be fully transparent about the data they collect or how they use it. This situation has resulted in people being ‘managed by bots’; where workers can be suspended because a computer said so and drivers have little to no opportunity to challenge these decisions. Employers appear to use algorithms in a way that shifts the burden onto the workers to prove that they are innocent. Employers need to be accountable for the decisions their algorithms make.

Finally, WIE’s report demonstrates that the surveillance that private hire drivers experience is not just vast data collection, but also, the use of more invasive technologies. For example, the report provides specific examples where facial recognition technology ended up locking drivers out of their account due to erroneous ID verification failures, leaving those drivers unable to earn an income.

But this isn’t just a story about gig economy workers, even though they are at the sharp end of fast emerging ‘productivity’ tech. Considering the rise of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of these practices seem to be embedding themselves across our workplaces. The danger is that workplace surveillance is being normalised and seen as a fair trade off, rather than an asymmetrical tool that further entrenches the power that employers already have over their workers. 

What’s next 

PI, WIE and ADCU have launched a public campaign and encourage members of the public to add their voice to the public petition here. Please sign the petition and share it with your networks.

Image credits: Privacy International

(Contribution by: Dr. Ksenia Bakina, Legal Officer, EDRi member Privacy International)