back to article If you want a vision of the future, imagine not a boot stamping on a face, but keystroke logging on govt contractors' PCs

Anyone working on a substantial contract with the US state of New Jersey could soon be required to install software that captures the screen and tracks keystrokes – to verify all hours billed are legit. That's if proposed legislation – coincidentally shaped by a maker of work verification software – is approved. What's more: …

  1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Back in the real real world

    It's not so much a matter of when and where you do the work. It's what the work really is. The keystrokes are only the end product of the work. The work happens inside the brain. Are they going to fit EEGs next? And if so how are they going to figure if the brain waves are work?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Back in the real real world

      >Are they going to fit EEGs next?

      No because then they wouldn't be able to monitor time in brain dead meetings

      Following their latest little tantrum when they stopped paying contractors I'm surprised they can get any to work for them, at least without a 25% hike in rates

    2. Marketing Hack Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Back in the real real world

      Yes, Doctor Syntax, your keystrokes were fine, but we caught you thinking about that Swedish bikini model and replaying "Despacito" in your head again, so here's a formal write-up about your lack of focus.

      1. PeterBradley

        Re: Back in the real real world

        Thinking about a model is one thing.. but do you know how many millions of hours of work time are spent on watching porn? the states shall not pay for that. Or computer games. Or working on a pet project.

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Back in the real real world

      I'd go further, and say it's not a matter of how much time you spend thinking about the work, either.

      A laborer produces a satisfactory result at a satisfactory cost, or does not. If I have an employee who only works one day a week but is twice as productive as the average employee, why would I complain? I should be able to tell if I'm getting good value for my money. If I am, good; if not, I need new employees, not surveillance. (For one thing, that's not going to improve quality.) And if I can't tell, then that's my management processes at fault.

      The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Beyond examining the results, management can fuck right off.

      Of course, the real problem here are would-be Big Brothers and vile bastards like Konanykhin who enable them.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Back in the real real world

        "f I have an employee who only works one day a week but is twice as productive as the average employee, why would I complain?"

        Because he's only producing two days work instead of five?

        1. M.V. Lipvig

          Re: Back in the real real world

          Producing 2 days work but only drawing one day's pay, you mean. Which is more valuable here?

      2. PeterBradley

        Re: Back in the real real world

        Your desire to be paid for unverified work is understandable but it's hardly a sound payment policy for the government.

    4. PeterBradley
      Headmaster

      Re: Back in the real real world

      True, but companies often bill for time never worked. In NYC, SAIC billed $500M for hours never worked, The bill is designed to protect states from such fraud.

  2. Oliver Mayes

    I would recommend that it first be installed on all politicians systems to ensure that they're doing their jobs instead of taking long golfing holidays.

    But let's face it, half of the elected officials have probably never turned a PC on in their lives.

    1. chris 143

      TBF their jobs aren't (always) computer based.

      Body Cams would be far more appropriate

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        who is going to check that data?

        Body Cams would be far more appropriate

        Amusing as that may be, I am not entirely sure I'd want to see that.

        Which reminds me:

        Q: "who is going to check all of that data?"

        A: "Oh, someone will write a program for that."

        Q: ".. umm, OK. And you don't see the problem here?"

        A: "No, no, we have people writing software for that too."

        Groan. But hey, plenty of pork will be wasted on friends, and that's what it is really about, isn't it, converting tax dollars into private equity? Or am I too cynical here (if that is possible)?

        1. PeterBradley

          Re: who is going to check that data?

          auditors will check the data.

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Sounds like a nice boost for hard drive sales.

    1. PeterBradley

      hard drives?? the world has long as moved to the Cloud.

  4. Starace
    Devil

    What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

    Agree to pay for any flexible job on an hourly basis and you're going to get screwed. For some jobs it's unavoidable but who makes that sort of agreement on a big contract, you're just asking to get overcharged. That's why cost-plus died out.

    Plus of course it's not going to be free to the states, everyone is going to just add the cost into their rates as part of their general billing.

    On the upside I see an emerging black market for work-simulation software to stimulate the work-monitoring applications...

    1. Dr_N Silver badge

      Re: What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

      Starace> On the upside I see an emerging black market for work-simulation software to stimulate the work-monitoring applications...

      You mean Homer's nodding drinking bird?

      1. DropBear Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

        I seem to recall Edison The Man Himself having a brush with workplace monitoring during his railway telegraphist days, in the form of having to send a letter each hour just to prove you're not asleep. Which of course he promptly spoofed with a mechanical autokey, nearly causing an rail accident by, ob(li)viously, failing to act on an advisory coming in while he, uh, slept. Moral of the story: don't. Just don't. It will inevitably be spoofed and it will not get you what you hoped to gain from it anyway. No force on Earth or outside it can make people into work-bots, and you don't want them that way anyway - the real world works only because it's lubricated by stuff folks are not supposed to be officially doing yet needs to be done somehow* anyway.

        * let's not even get into how any sort of petty business involving another human being behind a counter or a desk can only be done during "business hours", the exact same "business hours" that are supposed to confine you, as employee, strictly behind your OWN desk. To this day it boggles my mind how this is supposed to work even in theory. And this is not stuff you do twice a year, so you could get a day off or something to take care of it - it's near-weekly minor bullshit that just needs taking care of all the bloody time. In the end, the work gets done by when it needs to get done, and that should be good enough for anyone.

    2. moiety

      Re: What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

      There's already software and macros etc to simulate mouse movement and the like from when contracting sites tried the same thing.

      1. PeterBradley

        Re: What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

        That would not work - screenshots will show the absence of meaningful progress.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: What muppet agrees to pay per hour?

          It wouldn't take much effort to make it work; if you write something quickly, you can have a macro replayer retype it slowly and do whatever you please. If you have to have different documents up when the screenshot system works, you figure out the schedule, load up different-looking documents or old versions of whatever you have and have the program have a different one open each time the scheduled collection happens.

  5. a pressbutton

    Sauce Goose Gander

    I look forwards to the proposed monitoring software being used through the course of the deliberative process / public hearings.

    A taxpayer can use it to monitor the work rate / value add of the members of the panel.

    It may well return a value of 0

    1. PeterBradley

      Re: Sauce Goose Gander

      in many states, hearings are recorded and the videos are made available to the public.

  6. Herby Silver badge

    "at zero cost"

    I doubt it. Somebody needs to buy/install/maintain the software and keep it for 7 years? That is NOT a zero cost event. Someone in this case is the state contracting for business. I'm sure that the company promoting the service isn't going to give away the software for free, and then there is a server or two where screen shots can necessarily bog things down. The software necessary will probably only work on Windows Vista anyway...

    No, no thanks. No soup for you.

    Of course, the internal state owned projects (DMV anyone) won't be subject to any of this nonsense.

    1. J_J_Doe

      Re: "at zero cost"

      The software is free for business up to 5 employees because it is (likely) sponsored by Russian Intelligence. The citizen of Russia, Italy and Argentina lobbies key-logging and screenshot-taking software for US state and federal contractors. Brilliant!!

      1. Eltonga
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: "at zero cost"

        The citizen of Russia, Italy and Argentina lobbies key-logging and screenshot-taking software for US state and federal contractors.

        Argentina lobby????????? This is turning out to be extremely conspirative. Too much conspirative I'd say...

      2. PeterBradley

        Re: "at zero cost"

        Actually, bills are not vendor-specific, so you can use software produced by any national.

    2. PeterBradley

      Re: "at zero cost"

      The benefits come at zero cost TO THE STATE.

      For most contractors, the cost of verification software will be NEGATIVE, as it replaces the current time-sheet software and saves time which used to be spent on manual time-keeping. Saving 10 min per day = $3,000 per year in savings at the billable rate of $120/h.

  7. jake Silver badge

    New Jersey? Relax ...

    ... organized crime will never allow the bill to become a law..

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: New Jersey? Relax ...

      Why not? I can see a useful new service of providing false evidence of someone "working".

      I'd have thought organised crime would be well up for that, after all, every new law is a new business opportunity for a criminal.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: New Jersey? Relax ...

        That takes too much intelligence. Your standard organized crime unit doesn't use their brains to get money, they use their ability to bring force to their victims and little else. Whenever they have some intelligence involved, it's usually a group of lawyers finding loopholes. What are they going to do, contract out the writing of the software?

  8. Milton Silver badge

    Another substitute for bad management

    It's yet another astonishingly clumsy and intrusive way of failing to deal with the fundamental problem: bad management and rotten leadership. You never, ever get the best from people by effectively threatening them, spying on them and sanctioning them. At best you get grudging compliance to the lowest common denominator. If you want the best from your workers, you motivate them properly, make them feel valued, and reward them appropriately. This is not hard to understand ... but it goes against the mentality of bean-counters and politicians: the former able to value only what they can count; the latter always keen to hypocritically demand from others what they cannot deliver themselves.

    I'd expect this idiot idea to result in something of an arms race, as disgruntled techies seek to fool and foil the spyware, and, of course, it will drive many contractors to sensible, well-managed employers who are capable of setting realistic goals and deadlines and then letting their contractors get on with the job untroubled by thoughts of noxious spying.

    It boils down to a simple concept: do you want quantity, or quality? This nasty notion may get you the former; it will do nothing for the latter.

    (As to the fact that the bills are being pushed by the software manufacturers ... well, there are few things that combine greed and stupidity more effectively than a politician.)

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Another substitute for bad management

      "If you want the best from your workers, you motivate them properly, make them feel valued, and reward them appropriately."

      It starts before that. First you have to recruit the right workers. I can't think of anything more likely to make that task difficult but I've no doubt manglement will come up with something that does.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Interesting concept.

    If a .NET developer is waiting half-an-hour for his solution to build in Visual Studio, is the software going to flag it up as unproductive time?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      unproductive time?

      hah - just pipe all the compiler messages into a virtual keyboard... :-)

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      More relevantly, am I working if I'm reading elReg? Sure, I'm not actively working right now, but I am learning about security threats and the current state of the art. Reading around a subject is the only way to stay up to date.

  10. anonanonanon

    Really dodgy idea. People who type regularly all the time might not be doing good work (And it will probably encourage useless work just to look busy), and spending time to think about work you are doing will mean not typing, possibly making good workers look bad compared to busy busy workers.

  11. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    There will be a market for bespoke Contractor Keyboards and Mice

    The keyboard will be programmed to constantly type "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetuer...", and then backspace it out again in a semi-random fashion.

    The mouse would be programmed to wiggle back and forth when not otherwise in use.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: There will be a market for bespoke Contractor Keyboards and Mice

      It must provide automated real-time cost status for each task, along with a professional bio – not private or confidential info – of those doing the work. And it must provide the relevant agency with a feedback mechanism.

      No problemo. Those scripts can be added into most automated software testing tools to simulate users and data entry. Most gaming keyboards come with a form of macro recording, and there's plenty of commercial stuff available to automate invoice padding.

  12. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    I wonder how this integrates with proposed legislation in my state making it illegal for companies to require employees to monitor email outside office hours?

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Too many people letting the fools have their way

    I need to retire to somewhere with a pop of under 2K.

    People have to wake up.

  14. tiggity Silver badge

    a good incentive

    To write many lines of cumbersome, inefficient code as lots more key strokes and mouse moves

    .. as the "activity" to code a faster more concise solution looks relatively feeble in comparison

    Though, as has been hinted, for anything non trivial, its all about the thinking time

    Do contractors have to scan all their pen and pencil plans / sketches (I am far happier and faster planning stuff out on paper than using some paint or word processing tools)

    1. Robert 22

      Re: a good incentive

      But that would be 'Executive Time'.

    2. DropBear Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: a good incentive

      A nice way to easily triple your productivity... First it blindly counts the bot-injected rubbish characters, then the also bot-injected exactly equal ^H^H^H^H ones, then finally the ones of you doing the actual work! Win-win!

  15. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    Sure

    "In terms of privacy, TransparentBusiness' software allows people to turn it off as needed, so it only tracks billable activity. That obviates a significant privacy risk – capturing personal online activity."

    And we should trust them, because they have Transparent in their name.

    1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: Sure

      Most government systems make it clear that your presence there is monitored and nothing you do on them should be considered private. The privacy issue issue is a red herring. What if I said "Let's install software that will take up plenty of system, network and storage resources; cost lots of money while providing little return and will open up plenty of opportunities for leaks and abuse"? I doubt I could offload much of my product if I were to be honest about it. However, if I bypassed anyone with a clue and went straight to those responsible for procurement, I bet I could sell a ton of this crap.

  16. Vulch

    They should talk to HMRC

    About unintended consequences.

  17. Robert 22

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (from The Shining)

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

    . . .

  18. liac

    Just another pile of nonsense to deal with ....

    It seems that the more advances made in technology, the more we are steered towards asinine ideas..

    Let's see....take a rudimentary piece of software, suggest to dimwit politicians some 'cost benefits' and lobby for it.

    Then...patent the method....voila, new billion $ company is born.

    Any contractor (who is a developer worth their salt) will be able to fool this system. A good 'exercise' for AI learning to keep computer busy...or a little code to do one's own keystrokes....

    Why pick on contractors only...what about employees, the numbers which must be greater than contractors. Time theft by employees is probably even more rampant.

    This should be added to the Wall of Useless Technology Applications...along with IoT...

    As the Police say "Any step you take....any move you make ..... I'll be watching you"

  19. SVV Silver badge

    If my work is to be judged by the number of keystrokes I make

    then my work will be billed by the number of keystrokes I make too. Say goodbye to all efficient coding practices if you introduce this. You might end copy and paste programming, but you'll introduce copy and retype programming in its' place. Code reuse, decomposition and refactoring will be non existent, making maintenance much more expenssive. As the code will be much bigger, so will the number of bugs. Why call a variable employeCount when you could call it totalNumberOfEmployeesInTheEntireCompany? In fact, problems with too concise code will instantly become problems with too verbose code.

    Of course, nobody who cares about high quality, efficient, well designed code would work this way, but who cares as long as the people you do get aren't "slacking" by thinking about good design. efficiency and maintainability?

    1. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

      Re: If my work is to be judged by the number of keystrokes I make

      then government software will be written in COBOL.

      Oh, wait...

  20. Eddy Ito Silver badge
    Facepalm

    And which contractor paid for this legislation? Oh, it's the one with the contract to verify the work of the other contractors of course.

  21. DougS Silver badge

    So many problems with this

    There are some types of software that are almost entirely mouse driven, and other people can work almost entirely with the keyboard (using shortcuts etc.) without touching the mouse much. Will they be flagged as "not working" because they are only using one or the other for long stretches of time? What happens if you are on a conference call? People who are working and not paying attention, or worse are unmuted and constantly clicking their keyboard, are the bane of conference call attendees the world over! They are an indication that the attendee list is too long or the call is too long.

    Is anyone going actually review the "screen captures", and if they do will they be in a position to determine work isn't being done unless it is really obvious like always showing Facebook or Amazon instead of work related stuff? If they are screwing around on social media or online shopping they will have plenty of mouse/keyboard events, just not ones that are productive for work, so you will need a human to look at the captures. How much will that cost?

    I suspect they will use the threat of the software and hope it brings people into line, and only review things if they have reason to believe someone is slacking. But the slackers are creative, I'm sure you can get software that will replay past mouse/keyboard events - just have a few scenarios where you slowly compose an email, then cancel out before sending, or do other work related things that don't have any permanent effect. Just update them regularly, and set them running while you go pick up your kids, get some groceries, or go for a run.

  22. JohnFen Silver badge

    Just no.

    You literally couldn't pay me enough to put up with that sort of nonsense.

  23. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Ah New Jersey

    NJ is noted for its corruption and often inane laws. Might be something about being an open sewer for New York and Pennsylvania and the truly sort-of-competent politicians leave. The ones that are left seem to do a turn in Club Fed for various misdeeds. So I can believe the bozos in Trenton were paid off to enact such a stupidity and lawsuit magnet. So I would be following the money to see where it leads. I do have first hand experience with NJ corruption after watching numerous state officials get convicted as kid growing up in the sewer.

  24. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    So did their lawyers agree to be monitored?

    They bill by the hour, I presume.

    Same question about the newly hired lobbyist.

  25. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

    ""Paying contractors on self-certifications"

    .."results in some of them robbing the states blind," he explained"

    He later added "that's our job and we don't want any competition"..

    (One wonders if the alleged losses have been quantified and, if so, whether the cost of the certification software is ~ 95% of the alleged losses..)

  26. Harry Stottle

    Goose and Ganders

    First off, no politician (or authority in general) should even be permitted to make proposals like this until they themselves are already properly accountable.

    That should be a statement of the bleedin' obvious but obviously isn't, which is why I keep having to say it.

    Second, particularly in the higher end of the IT field which this appears to target, the notion that capturing computer based activity correlates with the value of any work being done betrays complete ignorance of the creativity which adds the real value to any project. This is related to the earlier comments which touch on the difference between quantity and quality. Yes, we've all had intense sessions where we pump out thousands of lines of code which all looks very productive (till you run it) But equally, I can sometimes spend hours looking at a blank screen, or perhaps a simple diagram on it, or even playing a mindless game, while trying to solve a problem, which eventually concludes with me typing one or two lines of code which achieves the desired result with elegance.

    Third, there are definitely use cases where such direct surveillance is justified, though sometimes we're lucky it wasn't enforced. Think Edward Snowden! More importantly, one of the measures that should be mandatory alongside GDPR is that anyone with access to sensitive data which isn't their own should be obliged to keep a private encrypted copy of their machine activity, periodically snap-shot and hashed to a publicly available immutable audit trail; so that in the event of any challenge to their handling of that data, they are in a position to prove their innocence, if necessary "in camera" to a trusted jury. However, should they be challenged and refuse to make that evidence available, we should be entitled to assume their guilt.

    (this concept is argued is somewhat more detail here)

  27. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    So how on earth does it measure the time I use reading reference material and sketching out solutions before touching fingers to keyboard?

  28. jake Silver badge

    Questions for Peter Bradley

    Who are you, and what's your stake in this?

  29. Claverhouse Bronze badge

    I hope that any entity inane enough to install such repulsive checks will NOT use the software of this greasy firm pushing it.

  30. Jeff 11

    Such an impressive technological solution naturally makes the assumptions that

    1) All work is done on a desktop machine

    2) All work involves typing or mouse activity

    3) All work is done on one device

    4) All work happens while online

    5) Phone calls with the client aren't part of work

    6) Meetings never happen

    7) Business travel isn't work

    ...and probably a million other dumb things.

    I wouldn't worry. It'll be trialled, ripped to pieces by users, and unceremoniously dumped when contractors ending up taking their clients to court, or walking out en masse over unpaid billable hours when they can demonstrably prove that they've been working during the hours the system tells the client they haven't.

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