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Post Office scandal shows dangers of blind faith in technology, union warns

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The Post Office IT scandal has exposed the dangers of blind faith in technology at a time when surveillance technologies are “creeping” into the workplace, a union has warned

The TUC said that intrusive worker surveillance technology and artificial intelligence risk “spiralling out of control” without stronger regulation to protect workers.

As the Post Office scandal inquiry continues this week, the union said it represented a glaring example of how subservience to technology can go badly wrong. More than 800 postmasters were prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 after the Post Office accused them of stealing from the tills. It later emerged that the organisation was relying on evidence from a faulty IT system.

‘Livelihood taken away’

“The Post Office scandal must be a turning point. Nobody should have their livelihood taken away by technology,” the union said. “Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from its punitive ways of working. Technologies could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment if left unchecked.”

The union’s research suggests that the majority of workers have experienced surveillance in the past year and overwhelmingly support stronger regulation. It said that workplace surveillance tech took off during the pandemic as employers transferred to more remote forms of work. This included monitoring of emails and files, webcams on work computers, tracking of when and how much a worker is typing and making calls.

‘Beyond the gig economy’

“The creeping role of AI and tech-driven workplace surveillance is now spreading beyond the gig economy into the rest of the labour market,” the TUC said. “AI-powered technologies are even being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles.”

The union said that employers should consult trade unions before introducing the use of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making systems, and an Employment Bill which includes the right to disconnect, alongside digital rights to improve transparency around use of surveillance technology.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic and now risks spiralling out of control. Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms, such as recruitment, promotions and sometimes even sackings.”

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