In 2017, Lorenzo, who works in health care, took on a temporary document-reviewing gig he could do from home. He was between full-time office jobs and liked that the temporary gig allowed him to take his son to school in the morning, walk his dog at lunch, and generally have more flexibility during the day. But Lorenzo soon found that his employer was monitoring him more closely than he had anticipated. The company used the workplace messaging service Microsoft Lync, which would display a green icon on employee profiles if they were active and a yellow icon if their computer had gone to sleep. Whenever Lorenzo would step away for a few minutes to refill his coffee or use the restroom, his Lync profile invariably reported him as inactive. One day, he ran to the store to get some milk, and when he returned, he saw messages from his boss asking where he was and whether he was working that day. After Lorenzo responded, his boss chided him and said he should keep his time away from his desk to a minimum. “Regardless of what my productivity actually was, he would just give me heck when I would step away from my computer,” Lorenzo said. “It was a very uncomfortable, frustrating situation where you’re sort of tied to your desk and afraid to even go to the bathroom.”
Lorenzo tried fiddling with his company-issued computer’s settings so that it wouldn’t go to sleep so quickly, but the IT department had configured the devices so that the sleep settings couldn’t be changed. He found a software program that would move his cursor for him while he was away, but using software was something IT could detect. An engineer by training, Lorenzo decided on a hardware fix. He constructed a movable platform using plastic Tupperware, a wooden frame, and a motor that could physically shift his mouse left and right. The mouse mover worked. His boss stopped pinging him whenever he stepped away from his desk. The contraption worked so well his wife convinced him to have it professionally manufactured and sold as part of a side business called Liberty Mouse Mover. (“Lorenzo de Medici” is the pseudonym he uses for his mouse mover business in order to preserve his standing in the health care industry.) The decision proved to be prescient: In March 2020, when the pandemic forced millions of people to work from home, sales of the mouse mover tripled, according to Lorenzo.
For years, Lorenzo’s mouse movers were one of the few such products on the market. Over the course of the pandemic, though, dozens of other similar businesses have popped up as companies have increased their attempts to track employees at their homes. You might say it’s become a game of cat and mouse mover.
Lorenzo’s boss may have been merely paying attention to whether his icon was green or yellow, but corporate surveillance systems for work-from-home employees can get far more sophisticated. As the Washington Post reported last year, the pandemic has boosted demand for a cottage industry of software like InterGuard, which keeps a minute-by-minute record of the apps and websites employees use throughout the day and labels each activity as productive or unproductive. It can also monitor email and instant messages, take sporadic screenshots of an employee’s computer, and track their keystrokes. Some workers even claimed to the Post that their pay is docked if the monitoring systems indicate that their activity levels were decreed inadequate. The Post also recently reported that there’s an emerging trend among law firms to use facial recognition systems to make sure employees are paying attention to their screens. Look away for too long and the system logs you out. Overall, the market research firm Gartner found that the number of large companies using productivity trackers has grown by 60 percent over the course of the pandemic. The firm further predicted that in the next three years this growth will rise to a 70 percent increase compared with pre-pandemic levels.
While they might not be able to circumvent keystroke tracking or facial recognition programs, mouse movers have grown in popularity during the pandemic among employees who at least have reasons to keep their computers from going to sleep. Diana Rodriguez, a marketing representative for the mouse mover maker Tech8 USA, said that the company saw a surge in sales during the first months of lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Tech8 USA had originally started selling the devices in late 2018 with an eye toward video game players who didn’t want to get signed out of a game when taking a short break. Then the pandemic arrived. “We started to look at how we can help out the people who were going to be working remotely,” said Rodriguez. “We refined our design to a point where we could help those at home.” Those refinements were mostly aesthetic: The early mouse movers bore big stylized logos, common with gaming hardware. Tech8 USA began putting out devices that looked more industrial or that had simple flower or peacock patterns so they’d look more at home in a professional home office setup. Business increased fivefold over the course of the pandemic, and the company still hasn’t seen a drop in demand even as more people are returning to their offices. Lorenzo notes, however, that sales for his mouse movers began decreasing in May and are currently 50 percent down from the peak of the pandemic. He attributes this to a flood of competitors, largely from China, who have recently entered the market.
Lorenzo isn’t completely done improving his product, however: Liberty Mouse Mover will soon be releasing a version with a chip programmed to make the motions more random, rather than just dragging the cursor left and right. Generally, though, Lorenzo isn’t too interested in continually upgrading his mouse movers as part of an arms race with productivity software developers. He thinks employees will eventually stand up to these surveillance systems if they get too overbearing. Regarding the success of his mouse movers, Lorenzo said, “It’s unfortunate that there is a need. What I really wanted to do is bring to market a relatively simple device for those individuals who just want a little bit of peace of mind.” Rodriguez similarly described her mouse movers as a tool to prevent burnout and promote privacy for remote workers. “The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst to saying ‘no’ to the ‘9-to-5’ schedule. The tables have turned in favor of the worker,” she said. “The Mouse Mover is a new tool in that shift.”