The Impact of COVID-19 on the Privacy of Early Career Computing Professionals

In this post, we share the results of our recent survey on the Impact of COVID-19 and Remote Work on Early-Career Computing Professionals. Through the survey of 253 remotely-working early-career computing professionals, we received feedback from the participants on how their privacy is affected during the pandemic.

Most Significant Impacts on Privacy

109 participants (43.1%) responded to an open-ended question about the most significant way their privacy has been affected. The majority (66.1%, N=72) state a negative effect as the most significant, whereas only 14.7% (N=16) participants state a positive effect as the most significant. 19.3% (N=21) abstain from giving a positive or negative impact in their statement.

We start with the most prevalent impacts on privacy according to the survey.

Negative Impacts

The responses having negative impacts fall into three categories. More than half of the responses (51.4%, N=37) focus on the changes in the positions and separations of work and private life in the new era. More than a third of responses (37.5%, N=27) focus on data privacy aspects. Except for a few cases, this group overwhelmingly agrees that their data privacy is in worse condition while working remotely compared to the times where they work in the office environments. Finally, 8.3% of the responses (N=6) mention using privately-owned personal devices as a problem for privacy due to their organizations not providing the necessary equipment. Let us give more details on the first two categories.

“A lot of online work can hamper our privacy…”

Work-Life Balance

Out of the negative responses, the largest group (51.4%, N=37) cite the influence of working remotely causing a shift in the balance of their work and their private life. More than three-quarters of this group (78.4%, N=29) believe that their work-life separation has not been as clear as before. For instance, having many virtual meetings such as video calls where the personal spaces (home environment), as well as people or pets at home, appear through video or voice. For instance, one participant says that people can see the inside of their house and occasionally their children appear in their calls.

“I feel like I’m having to disclose more of my family life to co-workers and supervisor and even clients! I don’t want my kids on calls but during some meetings, there was pressure to include them. It was very uncomfortable.”

Moreover, the work-life boundary problem also involves bringing work to private life, such as family members or neighbors constantly hearing work discussions. The remaining portion (21.6%, N=8) mentions that remote work enables people to contact them anytime, as there are now “online meetings always and everywhere”.

“…Not only can the other 3 people in my house hear me, but all my neighbors also can.”

Data Privacy

The second-largest group of participants (37.5%, N=27) list data privacy aspects as the most significant way that their privacy has been affected due to working remotely. More than one third (40.7%, N=11) mention using untrusted tools such as video conferencing software.

“I was forced to use the tools available to co-workers and students. Given the low awareness for privacy concerns, this means I had to use proprietary software where I’d rather not.”

For instance, one participant says that the software used for meetings does not protect their privacy and does not clearly specify what information is collected.

“Software used for meetings does not protect the privacy and does not clearly specify what information is collected and what not. Also, no choice is provided on what software is used during meetings.”

Another group (29.6%, N=8) says that they have to share personal information to perform remote work. For example, one teacher says that they disclose more personal information to their students than before to be able to connect with the students online.

“Address is known to more persons, home background and interruptions give stuff away.”

Some people in this group (25.9%, N=7) are concerned mainly about the increased sharing of online data in general (not necessarily personal information). For instance, one participant says that now more is online, so it increases the risk of losing privacy online too.

“Having to join online courses and meetings from my home, and to create accounts and share personal info with various online learning platforms.”

Positive Impacts

Out of the 16 responses with positive impacts, 87.5% (N=14) say that working remotely has affected their privacy positively. Thanks to remote work, other people in the workplaces cannot easily watch, look over their shoulder, or track their behaviors as before when they were working in an office.

“I now don’t have to be at my desk at all times and feel much more free to make pauses during work. I could before, but without the social pressure to stay at my desk, the days are admittedly less stressful.”

“I have a lot more freedom to work in a way that makes sense for me because I am in my own home and have great privacy there.”

For example, one student respondent says that their privacy has improved during COVID-19 as they are not being checked up or monitored in terms of working hours, time online, and so on.

“I can just get up and get food or use the bathroom or something and not worry about anyone noticing. Not that it mattered before, but it’s nice to have that bit of extra autonomy.”

The remaining two participants (12.5%) say that privacy is improved as the organizations adopted more secure infrastructures in terms of cybersecurity for remote work.

“My organization has now adopted secure cloud infrastructure for its activities and that sounds pretty good.”

How is COVID-19 Affecting Early-Career Computing Professionals Specifically?

The survey responses about the impacts of COVID-19 and remote work on data privacy contain specific characteristics of early-career computing professionals. Having an overall better understanding due to their possible technical knowledge on how personal data is collected and stored by organizations, some early-career computing professionals state their concerns about the usage of software tools such as video conferencing tools which they consider “untrusted”. Sharing personal information such as phone numbers, home addresses, as well as sharing voice/video from their home with the appearance of either themselves or their family members may create stress about possible cybersecurity incidents (e.g., data breaches) as well as privacy vulnerabilities such as sharing data with third parties without consent.

Most early-career computing professionals work in roles that have strict deadlines such as software release dates or seasonal assignments. Thus, their responsibilities differ from those who are more in the decision-making roles. In the survey, early-career computing professionals mention the worry about frequently reporting their work to their managers as well as having the pressure of being available, being controlled, or being contacted anytime during the day. Similarly, some participants mention possible monitoring of online activities by VPN and installed software on their devices. More awareness of the capabilities of existing technologies seems to cause more concerns over the possibilities.

The separation between work and life is a more sensitive topic for early-career computing professionals. given that they have to project confidence and competence to get promoted to higher ranks. Unwillingly sharing the inner-workings of their personal lives (e.g., living alone vs. with family and kids, staying in a shared apartment vs. living in an established home with a private library) may be yet another hidden obstacle for the professional lives of early-career computing professionals.

Stay tuned to learn more about the results of our survey and how working from home has affected young computing professionals!

Wellness Team, ACM Future of Computing Academy

Jessica Hair, Software Engineer, SmartFile, jessica@hairsquaredsoftware.com

Jaelle Scheuerman, ACM Future of Computing Academy, jaelle@gmail.com

Gürkan Solmaz, Senior Researcher, NEC Laboratories Europe gurkan.solmaz@neclab.eu

Pamela Wisniewski, Associate Professor, University of Central Florida, pamwis@ucf.edu

Image Credit: SSL Vectors by Vecteezy


The Impact of COVID-19 on the Privacy of Early Career Computing Professionals was originally published in ACM Future of Computing Academy on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.