Totalitarian monitoring: ‘1984’ nightmare or 2020 necessity?

The term totalitarianism refers to a political system that strongly opposes freedom of movement, firmly restricts freedom of speech, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over the lives of its citizens. Societies that have historically fallen victim to totalitarianism have shown evidence of extreme examples of monitoring and surveillance carried out by government organizations and corporate monopolies. It is no wonder that today’s conspiracy theorists are drawing conclusions based on the similarities between historical totalitarian societies and the current monitoring that has come under scrutiny. Further amplified because of the social distancing that is a fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, totalitarian monitoring is front and center in the minds of technology professionals. While it is best to leave debunking conspiracy theories to those who are better versed on the subject, what we cannot ignore is the basic premise of monitoring and the impact to the enterprise.

Totalitarian monitoring and total tech

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The often-referenced abbreviation that we hear today is called total tech, which sounds very safe and all-encompassing. Don’t we all want to brag that we have embraced total tech? The thing is, total tech is a shortened form of the term totalitarian technology, which doesn’t sound quite so nice. I recently watched a rerun of a very old talk show in which the hosts were walking around New York City asking people to sign a petition against women’s suffrage; women’s suffrage being the right of women to vote. Many people approached were quite happy to sign the petition because they assumed suffrage was a synonym for suffering. Abbreviating totalitarian technology into total tech seems kind of the same.

The reality of our culture today is that as individuals, we have embraced total tech. By agreeing to certain terms and conditions, we give away pieces of our privacy in exchange for a service, or an opportunity to be seen. While it is easy to consider specific examples that relate to consumer services, we cannot ignore the workplace category. It is time to educate ourselves, raise awareness, and to ensure we factor the right elements into our technology plan to provide safeguards for the elements we need to protect ourselves, our technology, our stakeholders, and our employees.

Within totalitarian technology, we are familiar with the concept of monitoring. As individuals, we embrace the elements that provide better home security and personal safety. While not the deterrent to crime that one would have hoped, camera surveillance footage is used to assign blame and impose punishment. Streaming a live video feed from home can help to alleviate concerns when traveling, or when leaving a pet alone at home. In fact, one can search online and quickly find massive quantities of data on the ins and outs of monitoring at the personal level. But a search for information on what to prepare for within the workplace category is not so readily available. To raise awareness, considering the lack of available information, we can draw out a few key points by looking at what is important to the enterprise and cross-referencing those key strategic goals with common themes from total tech.

Marketing: Using total tech to our advantage

Marketing is an all-encompassing term that includes advertising and promoting products and services to increase the level of awareness and desire for the product or service that we produce. Ultimately, the desired state is to increase sales and profit. A key component of an effective marketing plan is directing marketing efforts to a key audience. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on advertising. If you are not reaching an audience who is interested in your product, it is money out the proverbial window. Monitoring of consumer behavior and the identification of patterns is an extremely effective way to identify and target the right audience. Organizations that specialize in total tech are springing up at a rapid rate, and their services are proven effective. Companies such as Synthesio, Sprout Social, and Webtrends have capitalized on our desire to better understand our audience and leverage the information provided to increase our bottom line. Imagine the benefit of knowing your marketing dollars spent are directed specifically toward potential clientele who are known to be interested in your service.

Security: Sleepless nights or the sound of snoring?

There is no question that working from home has kept the enterprise security team on their toes. But, without question, they have risen to the occasion. There is substantial data on this topic. You can check out a few of my favorite articles here, here, and here.

When we consider the amount of monitoring that the workplace category is exposed to, we can break it down into two categories. Category one is monitoring that is initiated by the workplace. This includes employee monitoring, monitoring of perimeter walls and entryways for security purposes, and the monitoring of network activity. Whichever subcategory you consider when it comes to monitoring that is initiated by the workplace, the intent is to protect the resources of the enterprise. This category of monitoring has been proven effective in reducing theft and ensure productivity is maximized. It would be difficult to argue that this category is not an effective utilization of corporate resources. Considering that most of us agree to monitoring by social media sites in our personal lives, it would also be quite difficult to argue that employer monitoring is in breach of our right to privacy.

The second category is monitoring that the workplace is exposed to via external sources.

Subterfuge: A cool word that means fraud

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This is the second category of workplace monitoring, and it is something we hope to never encounter. That said, it is very real and one of which we need to be aware of. As we weigh the pros and cons of monitoring, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and embrace the information that is available to us to grow the business. But with the advantages comes a layer of risk. We need to ensure that uninvited external monitoring is prevented from entering the building. Cybersecurity teams have been diligent in this effort for many years, and in this case, we can be cautiously confident that there is substantial information on this topic, as well as internal monitoring software that can identify and prevent this from occurring. But don’t be complacent. We need to be diligent with service updates and connectivity.

In addition, it is important to ensure that role security is enabled within all applications. This is more important than ever with the adoption of cloud-based vendor applications. Corporate information should only be available on a need-to-know basis. Fortunately, external applications can be configured with role-based security. This means that employees only see the information that is required for them to complete the role that they were hired to do. While we would like to think that everyone is honest and will treat our data as company confidential, a quick look at history is a good reality check. Historically, organizations have been assigning access based on the individual employee. This would result in access being assigned when not necessary for that role. In addition, the act of terminating employee access can turn into a nightmare as there is no true record of the access assigned to each employee. The wrong employee monitoring company confidential information can result in the perfect storm, as this information is considered very valuable for fraudulent purposes. Cybercriminals have their own monitoring software that is easy to install and fast to cause irreparable damage.

Turns out, totalitarian monitoring — not so bad

The goal of most strategic plans is a mix of high-level objectives that will attract the best employees, provide a product or service that customers want and will be willing to pay a fee to acquire, and to increase growth and profit. As I undertook the research required for the writing of this article, my mind was made up that totalitarian monitoring was yet another security risk that we would have to assess and monitor as part of our technology plan. Turns out, security teams are well-versed in the art of detection and prevention, and the risk may not have increased as much as I originally thought. The enterprise does, in fact, have a lot to gain from totalitarian monitoring as it allows for the ability to find and target our key audience. In conclusion, from a workplace standpoint, data that is gathered under ethical and legal conditions has the ability to provide applications of totalitarian monitoring that return very positive rewards.

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