Incident 204: A Chinese Tech Worker at Zhihu Fired Allegedly via a Resignation Risk Prediction Algorithm

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AIAAIC. (2022-02-11) Incident Number 204. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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A picture of a system that monitors employees’ intentions of leaving the company has been circulating online. News emerged that Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A community, has used the system to monitor employee’s visits to job-seeking websites and the number of resumes they have submitted.

“Zhihu has never installed nor used the behavior perception system, and will not use such software in the future,” Zhihu‘s spokesperson said.

The behavior perception system was developed by Sangfor, a listed security company that enjoys over 100,000 consumers. The company focuses on enterprise-level network security, cloud computing, IT infrastructure, basic networking and the Internet of Things. The company has three sub-brands: Sangfor Network Security, Sangfor Cloud Computing and Sangfor Infrastructure.

In terms of the screenshot of the system, Zhihu said it is not clear about its authenticity, adding that the company has always firmly opposed this kind of system that illegally collects personal information.

Zhihu, which is planning a second listing in Hong Kong, has recently been through a storm of layoffs. Some insiders said that as many as 50% of the company’s video department had been let go. Zhihu denies the rumors of layoffs.

Zhihu Denies Using Behavior Perception System to Monitor Employees

A surveillance system developed by a Shenzhen-based software firm can identify workers who are planning to quit by spying on their online activities. Outrage at the dystopian tool from Chinese social media users resulted in the firm taking down the product from its website.

Chinese people working in corporate offices have to endure many indignities on the job. From having their bathroom breaks monitored by electronic timers in toilet cubicles to being barred from entering offices without smiles on their faces to being publicly shamed for using entertainment apps during office hours, white-collar workers in China are at risk of losing any sense of privacy. Now they have to deal with a new workplace surveillance tool that’s able to predict which employees are about to quit their jobs.

The controversial technology was brought to light last week after staff reductions at China’s Quora-like service Zhihu, the largest question-and-answer platform in the country. Accompanying the layoff rumors was a complaint made by an anonymous whistleblower, who alleged that he was fired by Zhihu after his manager found out about his plans to quit.

In a post (in Chinese) shared on Chinese professional networking site Maimai, the person wrote that on his first day back at work after the Spring Festival break, he was informed he had been laid off. “My boss reprimanded me. He also said to me, ‘Don’t think that I don’t know what you’re up to during office hours. I know exactly when you started thinking about leaving!’” the post read.

Included in the post was a screenshot of what he said was software used by Zhihu to flag employees who may be planning to resign. The image shows information on several metrics indicating a worker’s likelihood to quit, including the frequency of visiting employment websites, the number of job applications they’ve submitted, and even links to download PDF files of résumés the employees have sent out.

Although Zhihu denied using any technology to monitor employees’ online activities, a string of Chinese media outlets looked into the claim and identified the software as a product from Sangfor Technologies, a Shenzhen-based company that has a wide range of offerings related to network security and surveillance.

Per Blue Whale Media (in Chinese), an online publication covering business and finance in China, the software was built on a patent registered by Sangfor in 2018. Officially named “behavioral perception system,” the digital tool can calculate employees’ perceived resignation risk by tracking their online footprints, including browsing history and conversations with coworkers. In internal communication via emails and messaging services, a certain set of words and phrases critical of employers are flagged by the system, including bad treatment, no prospects, and low wage.

On its official website, Sangfor boasts more than 100,000 clients, including government agencies and educational institutions. Among its extensive list of private sector clients are Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, and TikTok’s owner, ByteDance. According to marketing materials obtained by Caijing (in Chinese), customers of Sangfor’s “behavioral perception system” are mainly schools eager to solve adolescent internet addiction and companies hoping to prevent confidential information leaks, identify productivity weaknesses, and analyze employees’ tendencies to resign. In an interview with Hongxin News (in Chinese), a salesperson at Sangfor didn’t directly answer when asked if Zhihu was one of its clients, but said that the vast majority of Chinese internet companies used its services “at varying degrees.”

While it’s unclear how many Chinese companies are currently using Sangfor’s resignation analysis system, the revelation triggered outrage among Chinese workers who condemned the technology as “a form of psychological abuse” and “a blatant invasion of their privacy.” The backlash was so significant that Sangfor removed the product from its website, but the service is likely still available for purchase upon request.

Using surveillance tools to monitor employee productivity and digital activity while on company time is far from a new phenomenon in China. Such practices are particularly common in Chinese tech companies, where the relentless pursuit of efficiency and a lack of regulations on labor abuse and employee privacy, often resulted in overwork, burnout, and depression.

In what’s probably the most outrageous case of workplace monitoring the world has seen, Chinese short-video app company Kuaishou faced intense criticism in 2020 after installing sensors in toilets to monitor how long employees took in the bathroom.

Chinese tech workers outraged by surveillance tool that flags employees who look likely to quit

Recently, a system that can monitor employee turnover tendency and sabotage has sparked heated discussions. Zhihu is accused of using the system to monitor employee turnover intention. On February 14, Zhihu told Nandu reporters that Zhihu had never installed and used the behavioral perception system mentioned on the Internet, and would not use similar software tools in the future. For the screenshots of the system on the Internet, Zhihu has never touched it, so it is not clear whether it is true. After verification, it was found that the source of the incident was that a KOL posted a screenshot of a software system suspected of monitoring employee resignation on the Internet, which was misinterpreted by some people and associated with Zhihu.

Zhihu said that recently, it has noticed some media reports that "the company monitors employee behavior perception system", and some sources believe that Zhihu uses this system. For the illegal collection of personal information security, it seriously deviates from Zhihu's values, and has always been firmly opposed to this type of system Zhihu.

Nandu reporters noticed that recently, some bloggers exposed the monitoring system in their posts, accompanied by the words "Zhihu was exposed to layoffs", and other media reports linked the rumors of Zhihu's layoffs to the monitoring system.

Nandu previously reported that on the evening of February 11, a netizen posted an employee behavior monitoring system, claiming that the monitoring system could know in advance the intention of employees to change jobs, which aroused heated public debate. According to the background picture of the system transmitted on the Internet, in the behavior perception system, the company can view the details of employees who are prone to resignation. The employee surnamed Ju in the example in the screenshot has visited the job search website 23 times, submitted resumes 9 times, and chatted with keywords. 254 records were recorded.

Nandu reporters noticed that the behavior monitoring system was referred to as the "Sangfor Behavior Perception System BA" developed by Sangfor Technology Co., Ltd. On the evening of February 11, a reporter from Nandu checked Sangfor's official website and found that the system interface disclosed in the product overview of Sangfor Behavior Awareness System BA is highly similar to the interface of the online behavior monitoring system, and both have the ability to predict employee turnover intention and employee sabotage.

The official website shows that the system can identify employees with potential resignation risks in advance, analyze the list of resignation risk personnel and risk levels for the organization, and provide a basis for determining resignation risks. In addition, the system can also analyze the organization's employee delinquency, display the overall total number of delinquents and the average daily delinquency time, and analyze the factors that cause employees to deceive by collecting irrelevant applications that affect work efficiency and the time period in which delinquency is concentrated. In addition, the ranking of departments and employees with the most serious sabotage can also be given.

The company's official website also shows the cooperation case of China Everbright Bank Shenzhen Branch, Sina and East China Normal University using the online behavior management system. On the morning of February 14, a reporter from Southern Metropolis found that the behavior perception system could no longer be retrieved on the Sangfor official website, and the cases of cooperation with China Everbright Bank Shenzhen Branch and other organizations listed on the official website were no longer visible.

Nandu reporters found that as early as March 2018, Sangfor publicly applied for a patent titled “A method, device, equipment and storage medium for analysis of turnover intention”, which was published in August of the same year. The details of this patent show that the method includes acquiring online behavior data in the employee terminal; analyzing the employee's resignation tendency risk level corresponding to the employee terminal, and obtaining corresponding resignation tendency analysis results, etc.

In the 2021 semi-annual report, Sangfor once stated that from 2009 to 2020, its network-wide behavior management products continued to maintain the first domestic market share in the security content management category for 12 consecutive years, and the domestic market share in the first quarter of 2021. The rate ranking continues to be number one.

Zhihu said that it has never installed a perception system to monitor employee behavior! Sangfor related cases are no longer visible

Along with Zhihu's layoffs, a system that claims to be able to monitor employee turnover tendencies and sabotage has aroused public attention and brought the listed company Sangfor and its partners to the forefront.

A few days ago, under the topic of #zhihu being exposed to large layoffs #, some netizens revealed that some companies have installed behavioral perception systems, which can analyze and rate employees' turnover intentions. The evaluation terms include "high-risk "Suspected", "suspicious", etc., the specific monitoring content covers the number of times employees visit recruitment websites, job applications on the site, search keywords, and the number of resumes, etc. Even the resumes delivered by employees on the recruitment website can be previewed and downloaded.

It is understood that the system was developed by Sangfor Technology Co., Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as Sangfor). Sangfor is a product and service provider focusing on enterprise-level network security, cloud computing and IT infrastructure, basic network and Internet of Things. It has three major business brands: Sangfor Smart Security, Sangfor Cloud and Sangfor New IT. The company's official website shows that at present, more than 100,000 enterprise users are using Sangfor's products.

However, as of press time, Sangfor has deleted the product introduction page. Along with it, there are also successful cases of cooperation between the monitoring system and major enterprises.

So, what kind of "magic system" is this? Is it real to monitor employees' online behavior?

The relevant system has patents, and the minimum monitoring is 40,000 yuan for 3 years

According to public information, the online transmission system is called "Behavior Awareness System BA", which is a massive online log based on Internet behavior management. , which helps organizations gain insight into behavioral risks and simplify operation and maintenance management.

It is understood that in addition to the log center, bandwidth analysis, non-shutdown detection and analysis, and leak traceability analysis functions, the system also has the functions of turnover intention analysis, office network situation analysis and work efficiency.

Among them, in terms of turnover intention analysis, Sangfor said that by analyzing the frequency and frequency of employees visiting job search websites, as well as the actions of submitting resumes on job search websites, it can display the number of turnover intentions, names and positions for enterprise managers, and even provide information about turnover intentions. Five employees to help companies "intervene in advance to solve the risk of leaks and job vacancies caused by employee resignation."

In terms of work efficiency, the system can help enterprise managers to check the work situation of employees in detail. Specifically, managers can view employees' online records through the background, and intuitively understand what different employees did during what time period from the data, such as chatting, watching videos, shopping, and stock trading.

Just when netizens questioned the system for allegedly infringing on personal privacy, the Science and Technology Innovation Board Daily reported that a salesperson in Sangfor said, "This is very legal, and many companies are using it."

According to the Red Star Capital Bureau, generally speaking, it is necessary to first deploy an online behavior management system, conduct an intranet audit, and then import the relevant data to the behavior perception system for analysis. And a salesperson in Sangfor said that if you just want to analyze the employee's resignation risk, you can only use the online behavior management system. If you use the behavior perception system, you can predict more risks, such as employees sending and uploading company secrets documents, etc.

The salesperson revealed that, assuming a company's bandwidth is 100M and the number of terminals to be monitored is 200 , the cost for three years is only 40,000 yuan if only the online behavior management system is used. If the two systems are used together, the cost will rise to hundreds of thousands of yuan. When better network broadband and more terminals are equipped, the cost can even reach hundreds of thousands of yuan.

What gave Sangfor the confidence to "just sell" the system was that the company applied for a patent for the "behavior perception system" in March 2018, and it passed the review and took effect in September of the same year.

The scope is limited to "company intranet", and the market share is the first for 12 consecutive years

However, as public opinion fermented, firstly, Zhihu in the center of the storm denied installing and using the so-called behavioral perception system, and said that similar software tools would not be used in the future; then Sina, one of the convincing customers, also publicly stated that the employee monitoring system is completely unreliable. I don't know, and I have never purchased related services; even the behavior perception system BA on Sangfor's official website can't be retrieved, and the successful cases of the system's cooperation with China Everbright Bank Shenzhen Branch, Sina and East China Normal University listed earlier are also unavailable.

In this regard, according to the daily economic news report, Jiang Wenguang, secretary of the board of directors of Sangfor, said that he did not pay attention to this matter (could not be retrieved), but the behavior perception system BA was not launched recently. Work efficiency analysis and turnover intention analysis are all functions of the product. , the company does not monitor whose data, it is the customer's own behavior.

Jiang Wenguang emphasized that the recently hotly discussed turnover analysis is a very small function in Sangfor's products, and the focus of the behavioral awareness system is to analyze leaks and traces to help government and enterprise users manage some internal threats. Moreover, this system only monitors office computers and the company's internal network, and does not monitor employee behavior on the Internet.

In Jiang Wenguang's view, it is more reasonable for employees to use the company's computer and network to submit resumes or violate regulations (watching videos, chatting, etc.), and it is more reasonable for the company to manage. "It can be avoided if employees use their own computers or the Internet at home."

According to public information, Sangfor was established in December 2000. Its business is mainly divided into three major segments, namely enterprise-level network security, cloud computing, IT infrastructure and the Internet of Things. The aforementioned behavior management system products are classified as the network security business field. The financial report shows that in 2020, Sangfor's network security business will bring about 3.349 billion yuan in revenue, accounting for 61.35%.

It is worth mentioning that in the 2021 semi-annual report, Sangfor once stated that its network-wide behavior management products have continued to maintain the first domestic market share in the security content management category for 12 consecutive years from 2009 to 2020, and the number one in 2021. The domestic market share ranked first in the first quarter.

On January 25, Sangfor released its 2021 annual performance forecast, with an estimated revenue of approximately RMB 6.707 billion to RMB 6.816 billion, a year-on-year increase of 22.87%-24.87%; however, its net profit attributable to shareholders of listed companies fell by 61.82%-70.22% year-on-year. %, about 241 million yuan to 309 million yuan.

Regarding the sharp drop in net profit, Sangfor said, firstly, the growth rate of operating income was slow; secondly, due to the further increase in investment, various expenses were still growing rapidly; thirdly, because the overall gross profit margin declined.

On February 14, Sangfor's share price hit an intraday minimum of 142.66 yuan, a new low in the past year. As of the close, it reported 144.5 yuan per share, a drop of more than 55% compared to the peak price of 321.73 yuan per share in the past year. 60.1 billion yuan. As of the press release on the 15th, the stock price has rebounded to 145.65 yuan, and the latest market value is 60.55 billion.

"Monitoring the tendency of employees to switch jobs" caused controversy, Sangfor urgently removed the product from the shelves, and the lawyer said that the employee was not informed of the suspected violation of the law

In fact, in addition to Sangfor, many domestic security software companies have developed similar behavior perception systems. Qi Anxin is on the list and has launched a risk perception program for online behavior, saying that the program can realize complete online behavior perception, including work Efficiency, resignation analysis, anti-confidential risk analysis, etc., to provide managers with a complete behavioral compliance assessment report.

According to the Science and Technology Innovation Board Daily, citing a number of corporate employees, many large companies will install similar traffic analysis and monitoring tools on their company's computers, so that they can learn about employees' Internet traffic and software usage. For example, when employees are found to be using pirated software, they will be asked to delete them. And some companies even conduct company-wide notifications of employees' visits to non-work websites.

So, are such companies' behavior of monitoring employees' online behavior suspected of violating laws and regulations such as the Personal Information Protection Law?

He emphasized that companies should first inform employees of traffic monitoring, and then obtain employee consent. If the enterprise fails to do so, it will constitute illegal processing of personal information and suspected violation of employees' personal privacy rights.

You Yunting said frankly that in fact, as early as 2007, he had been in contact with business consulting in this area, and it was proposed by a software developer similar to Sangfor. "My suggestion is that employees can set their own Internet access behaviors, whether to use the Internet for business or to do personal affairs online." He said that if they do private affairs, the company does not monitor the corresponding traffic. The advantage of this approach is that if employees will It is obviously unreasonable to set the long office hours for personal affairs, and you will feel embarrassed; if the employees themselves set up the Internet access for business, the enterprise can monitor the corresponding traffic.

"At the same time, if an enterprise uses compulsory authorization as a condition for entry, it will infringe on employees' personal information rights and privacy rights ." You Yunting said that employees can complain to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Internet Information Office, and the labor law enforcement department, or go directly to labor arbitration. The commission or the court claims that the compulsory authorization of the enterprise is illegal.

"Monitoring the tendency of employees to switch jobs" caused controversy, Sangfor urgently removed the product from the shelves, and the lawyer said that the employee was not informed of the suspected violation of the law