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There has been an increase in demand for webcams amid the pandemic Image Credit: Stock image. For illustrative purpose only

Dubai: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are increasingly allowing employees to work from home (WFH). Webcams are also being increasingly used in the wake of stay-at-home requirements by companies for their employees. But Mathew, a 57-year-old logistics manager in Dubai, who had to work with the web cam on while working from home, has his reservations about it.

He said, “My boss monitored my work from home with a web cam. It did feel demeaning to have to prove that I was working by staying in front of a camera all day, after eight years at the company. But working from home was new to me too, and I just accepted it. From 8am to 5pm daily, I would have the webcam switched on. I could also see some of my colleagues’ feeds throughout the day using the platform. It was not a good feeling. Having a small coffee break away from the desk became impossible, what if the boss looked for me right at that moment. It did happen once, I had just stepped away to have lunch and I heard my boss ask, “Where is Mathew?” I almost dropped the plate in my rush to get back, I didn’t complete my meal that time. It did get stressful and I spoke to my boss after two weeks of this and agreeing on a set time for a break helped. I think companies had no idea how to go about the new norm that came with the pandemic. Now, I am glad to be back in office and back to my usual routine.”

Such a scenario has raised questions about whether it is ethical for employers to use webcams to keep an eye on employees? Is it ethical and  permitted under UAE law?

What employers have to say

Asad Haque said as an employer hosting regular meetings with his staff, vendors, clients, webcams are particularly useful to him.

Asad Haque

“We connect to the world every day and webcams enable better video conferencing and meetings,” said Haque.
He said he makes sure to take care of all necessary ethical protocols and has the webcam on only after getting the consent of his employees. “We maintain utmost discipline in all company-related communications. We respect all individual cultures, adhere to local office timings, privacy policies and maintain highest levels in code of conduct. In the last 10 months, webcams, video conferencing and technological interfacing and collaborative working has reached a new level altogether. As part of our business too, we have deployed and helped various organisations to incorporate webcam, video, smart surveillance solutions for security purposes and keeping an account of work from home.”

But British employer Steve Armitage, 51, owner and managing partner of UBS Consultants, an outsourced accounting provider, said he is not an advocate of monitoring employees on webcams to ensure they are doing their job right. “As an outsourced cloud accounting business, all our employees work from home and we place a great deal of trust in them to perform their tasks.”

Steve Armitage

He felt the use of a webcam to be a draconian measure and like having a “Big Brother” at home. “It is the digital equivalent of sitting on your employees’ desk and watching their every move!”

Having said that, Steve said he does use digital software to connect with this staff for group meetings only but not for keeping a tab on their work. “We have implemented “” task management software. This allows us to create tasks on a daily/weekly/monthly basis for all employees and set completion dates. We can, therefore, monitor an employee’s performance remotely and flag any performance issues.”

He said UBS Consultants were early adopters of Zoom this year when the pandemic hit the UAE. “It helps us to have group meetings to stay in touch. The technology also allows reports to be reviewed on screen and any client accounting issues to be resolved without the need to travel to physical locations across the city. “I am a great advocate of the technology and efficiencies it provides. I would say invest in technology to streamline your business, but trust your employees to perform their tasks.”

Another Indian entrepreuner, Nikita Phulwani, also an influencer and owner of a marketing agency in Dubai, said there is no way she would be keeping a tab of her employees via a webcam. 

Nikita Phulwani

“We are a small team of four and have been working from home almost till end of June, early July. We are back to office now but there are times some of us still prefer working from home. Regardless of where we are, there is a set rule in place to follow. We connect every morning as a team at 9.30am, go over our day and what needs to be done. Towards the end of the day the team leaves an update again,” she said.

Nikita said she has never pushed her team to install a webcam and would never think of it. “I find it a bit extreme. I don’t believe in micromanaging as we are all adults and should learn to trust each other. There’s accountability for the work for sure, but as long as the work gets done, deadlines met, there is no need for any extreme measures.”

She added that during the national sterilisation drive when everyone was forced to work from home, her team delivered strong campaigns for clients.

What do employees think?

Elena Pak

She is of the firm belief that webcams should not be enforced on employees.

Elena Pak, 35, from Uzbekistan, a senior accountant for a private company in Dubai, is of the firm belief that webcams should not be enforced on employees. “There is no way I am going to accept this. I am a dedicated and professional worker. I don’t need to be monitored like a child.”

But Filipino expat John Oliver Simbajon, 32, a fashion designer and resident of UAE for five years, is okay with the concept. He does not have a problem if his employer asks him to switch on his webcam for a meeting or for some time.  

John Oliver Simbajon

“Having the webcam prepares your mind for an office setting. I dress up and wear outfits which I would to office. It sort of peps me up for the day, instills more discipline. I don’t have a problem with webcams as long as it is not required for me to have it on all day,” he said.

What does the UAE law say?

Devanand Mahadeva

Devanand Mahadeva, director, Goodwins Law Corporation, UAE said: “Webcam usage via laptops, tablets and mobiles phones has widely increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. From a legal perspective, employers can use webcams for video conferencing to talk to staff and colleagues.

“Albeit, there are certain regulations and norms to be followed while using such video recording devices.” Among them:

• A disclaimer that the meeting is being recorded has to be given before recording. 100 per cent consent of all meeting attendees has to be taken.

• Webcam footage cannot be misused for illegal means whatsoever.

• It may be used with permission as a means for security purposes like in the cases of CCTV footages, experiments etc without prior permissions

Devanand said that overall, the UAE is very strict when it comes to cybercrimes and privacy. He also said with the increasing use of webcams there are have been increased instances of cybercrimes such as video-hacking, identity theft and invasion of privacy and compromised data protection and phishing scams through hacking. “There is a no federal data protection law in UAE. However, there are various other federal laws that contain provisions relating to privacy and protection of personal data are set out in various federal laws such as the UAE Penal Code, the UAE Cybercrime Law and some sector specific laws. The Cyber Crime Law (Federal Law No. 5 of 2012) is of prime importance as crime such as hacking and phishing involve commercial or sensitive data.”

Devanand explained that under this UAE Cybercrime Law someone “phishing” — an act of extortion or attempt to acquire act of unlawfully obtaining any means of electronic payment or related information via an electronic source using data that was captured by hacking webcams — is liable to hefty fines from Dh300,000 up to Dh750,000 along with imprisonment for at least six months. “Article 2 (3n) of the law also stipulates that if the data hacked is of personal nature, the fine can range between Dh250,000 up to Dh1 million and one year imprisonment.”

Under the UAE Penal Code (Federal Law No. 3 of 1987), there are a number of offences listed that includes a number of defamation and privacy offences. Some of the significant offences are —

* Article 378 penalises the unauthorised disclosure of private data. the provision prohibits the recording or publishing of any news, pictures or comments which may reveal the secrets of people’s private or family lives.

* Article 379 penalises any person found complicit hacking, disclosure of a secret that a person is entrusted with by reason of his profession or circumstance without consent, unless permitted by law.

* Under the UAE Penal Code there is duty to report such crimes not only on the victim but also on any person who is aware of the occurrence.

* Article 274 says that any person who is aware of the incidence of such crimes must report it to the competent authorities or risk a fine of up to Dh1,000.

Where to report phishing scams

According to Devanand, the National Electronic Security Authority, a federal authority; Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA); UAE Computer Emergency Response Team (aeCert), Dubai Electronic Security Centre are places to report such crimes.

What is a webcam and how does it work?

Mohammad Rafi, owner of Tecpro Solutions, a systems integration provider in the UAE, explained that a webcam is a compact digital camera that can be connected to a computer to broadcast video images in real time (as they happen). He said thanks to the pandemic and employers offering work from home (WFH) solutions to reduce the impact of the virus spread, web cameras have been on demand. “Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a surge in sales of webcams. There was a massive demand from schools, parents and corporates. The demand continues to grow,” said Rafi.

Mohammad Rafi

He said thanks to the pandemic and employers offering work from home (WFH) solutions to reduce the impact of the virus spread, web cameras have been on demand.

“Just like a digital camera, the web camera captures light through a small lens at the front using a tiny grid of microscopic light-detectors built into an image-sensing microchip (either a charge-coupled device (CCD) or, more likely these days, a CMOS image sensor),” explained Rafi.

He said an image sensor and its circuitry converts the picture in front of the camera into digital format. “Unlike a digital camera, a webcam has no built-in memory chip or flash memory car. Webcams have USB cables which supply power to the camera from the computer, capturing the digital information.” Rafi said some webcams work wireless as well and don’t need to be connected to a computer.

“A webcam works well for remote sessions. Using a camera along with a VoIP [voice over internet protocol] communication solution like Skype, Zoom, MS Teams, Google apps is a great way to have a video conference where team members can see each other. In fact, since video conferencing solutions like Skype, Zoom are affordable, you can actually use a webcam as a security monitor of sorts. This can be accomplished by always having the webcam turned on so that employers can easily check on their remote employees with just a glance of their monitor.”

Rafi said, “On a different note, keeping the webcam on will prompt employees to dress up for their work day even if it is in the comfort of their house. It also motivates them to be disciplined and vigilant at work.”