To convince workers to join the unstable and unreliable world of freelance work, startups and platforms often promise freedom and flexibility. But on the digital freelance platform Upwork, company software tracks hundreds of freelancers while they work by saving screenshots, measuring the frequency of their clicks and keystrokes, and even sometimes taking webcam photos of the workers.
Upwork, which hosts “millions” of coding and design gigs, guarantees payment for freelancers, even if the clients who hired them refuse to pay. But in order to get the money, freelancers have to agree in advance to use Upwork’s digital Work Diary, which counts keystrokes to measure how “productive” they are and takes screenshots of their computer screens to determine whether they’re actually doing the work they say they’re doing.
Upwork’s tracker isn’t automatically turned on for all gigs on the platform. Some freelancers like it because it guarantees payment, but others find it unnerving. Adam Florin is a digital freelancer who says he’s used various time tracking tools during his 15-year career, and he finds Upwork’s software particularly “creepy.”
"I've never had a client expect to be able to look over my shoulder for every minute of every day. That's what Upwork is providing."
“I've never had a client expect to be able to look over my shoulder for every minute of every day,” Florin told BuzzFeed News via direct message. “That's what Upwork is providing.”
Florin said the idea of rating a freelancer’s productivity by counting keyboard taps and mouse clicks is “bogus,” and he thinks Upwork’s use of screenshots is an overreach.
“You hear a camera sound, and then see a copy of the screenshot in the Upwork window. Then a timer starts ticking down a few seconds so you can race over and delete it if you need to,” he said. “What if you have received a sensitive email and it's open? It's so invasive.”
To hear online gig platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and Gigster tell it, the future of work, in which platforms instantly connect workers with paying jobs, is all about freedom. Upwork’s founding mission was to create a platform where “workers would enjoy freedom and flexibility to find jobs online,” and in a 2017 blog post, the company described the growing number of freelance workers as “a shift that gives workers the independence to choose when and where they want to work.”
But Upwork’s time tracking software contradicts that sense of freedom — similar to how other gig economy platforms, including Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Postmates, promise workers flexibility and autonomy but then track their every movement with GPS and evaluate their performances with fickle customer reviews.
“We seem to think that ‘flexibility’ is the same thing as autonomy, and it’s not,” University of Edinburgh digital sociologist Karen Gregory told BuzzFeed News. “Autonomy sits at the heart of meaningful work. These surveillance technologies chip away at that autonomy.”
"Autonomy sits at the heart of meaningful work. These surveillance technologies chip away at that autonomy."
Upwork maintains that freelancers don’t have to use the time tracker if it makes them uncomfortable. “The primary reason this technology exists is because it is the underpinning of our Payment Protection, which helps ensure freelancers get paid,” Upwork said in a statement. “The technologies provide proof of work that a freelancer performs and, if there is a case where the client doesn’t pay the freelancer for their work, Upwork steps in and pays the freelancer out of the company’s own pockets.” The company says time tracking isn’t required for 85% of projects on its site. Of those, only 1% use the webcam feature, which is entirely opt-in for freelancers.
But while Work Diary may be opt-in on its surface, Microsoft Research’s Mary Gray said freelancers may not feel like they really have a choice. The workers who have “the least economic or cultural capacity to refuse jobs that expect freelancers to submit to surveillance” are “precisely the ones likely to give up their autonomy and right to work without surveillance,” Gray told BuzzFeed News.
Freelance designer Charli Prangley, who doesn’t use Upwork, discovered the tool while reading instructions on Upwork’s website for hiring and paying freelancer workers.
She told BuzzFeed News she found the idea of having her work screenshotted and keyboard taps logged “ridiculous.”
After reviewing Upwork forums, University of Edinburgh’s Gregory found that workers discussing the time tracking tool had mixed opinions on its usefulness. “Some workers find them deeply offensive and intrusive, arguing that trust is built through the quality of their work, not through these images. Others seem to think the screenshots guarantee that their client knows they are working, that they help build a reputation for reliable and efficient service, and are a way to ensure proper payment,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Jack Larsen, who says he’s billed over 1,000 hours on Upwork, acknowledged that the Work Diary feels “super invasive at first,” but said he’s ultimately come to rely on the tool.
“I don't mind a client being able to see my screen; if I were billing a client without the tool it would be their project on my screen anyway,” he told BuzzFeed News via email. “I've only ever had one client fight me on hours and I won because those screen caps showed I was actively working on their project.”
When activated, Upwork’s Work Diary monitors workers in 10-minute intervals. To measure “Activity Level,” the program counts mouse movement and keystrokes. If a 10-minute period goes by and the tracker doesn’t record any clicks or taps, the freelancer is marked inactive. Some freelancers say this isn’t an accurate way to measure whether someone is actually working, because, for example, someone who’s drawing on paper or thinking about a project would appear inactive.
"I've only ever had one client fight me on hours and I won because those screen caps showed I was actively working on their project."
“I tend to pace about or go out jogging when I feel creatively stuck, which would otherwise show as periods of inactivity,” said an anonymous freelancer of the time tracker. “For me it's like a chair with two legs – it supports me but I can never relax using it.”
Upwork doesn’t record what freelancers type and click, only how frequently, but a second anonymous freelancer, who requested anonymity to protect his relationships with Upwork clients, whom he relies on for his entire income, said he still worries about security.
“Logging keypresses is unnecessary,” he said. “Not only is it not an indication of working activity ... it sets a creepy practice as the norm.”
Upwork’s screenshot function also works in 10-minute intervals, though not every 10 minutes exactly. That way, freelancers don’t know exactly when it’s coming, so they can’t hide chat windows and other non-work distractions. "It’s semi-random, so that the freelancer doesn't slack off while on the clock basically,” the anonymous developer said.
Workers can delete screenshots if the tracker does accidentally capture personal information, but if they do, they lose the minutes worked associated with that screenshot. “Every screenshot is worth 10 minutes,” the anonymous freelancer said. If you delete a screenshot, “you lose those tracked 10 minutes.”
The consequence is that taking breaks can be anxiety-inducing for freelancers. “For example, I want to take a break and can't, because it's been 12-14 minutes since the last screenshot, and it's going to be taken ‘any second now,’” he wrote in an email. “So I work [an] extra 3-4 minutes while I really need to go to the toilet.”
In an email, a spokesperson for Upwork said freelancers who need to delete a screenshot or who were marked inactive erroneously (e.g, they were using that time to think, or plan on paper) can log that time with the client manually and still get paid. But if the client chooses to contest the manual time, Upwork won’t necessarily guarantee the freelancer payment.
According to Upwork’s website, clients can check on freelancers using "the Activity Meter," which offers a "detailed view, including minute-by-minute activity counts." Upwork stores this data, which clients can download but freelancers cannot, for up to a year. "Upwork does not use this data in any way other than to ensure proper payment for those who opt in to use it," the company said in a statement.
Gray, of Microsoft Research, said the reason freelancers allow Upwork to track them in such detail is because “they don’t fully understand how much data can be collected on them or how that information could be used against them for future work opportunities.”
Digital sociologist Karen Gregory felt similarly. “On the one hand, individuals are told you have the freedom and flexibility to work how you choose,” she said, “yet on the other, platforms … create conditions of surveillance and control.” The fact that freelancers don’t own their Upwork-generated data “diminishes worker agency and autonomy,” she said.
Freelancer Jack Larsen acknowledged some discomfort with having Upwork constantly collect information about his work habits, but said he ultimately trusts the company “not do something evil with what they collect.”
“Sure, I mean it is constantly watching what you do,” he said. “But so is every other technology we use in our life.” ●