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Public Agencies Are Buying Up AI-Driven Hiring Tools and “Bossware”

The Markup, through public records requests, found more than 20 public agencies using the sometimes-controversial software

Illustration of abstract diagram with resumes, stars and PDFs. In the middle are hexagons of people's profiles.
Gabriel Hongsdusit

In 2020, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) faced a daunting task: It needed to fill more than 900 job vacancies—and fast. The center, which does things like inspect pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, was in the process of modernizing the FDA’s New Drugs Regulatory Program just as the pandemic started. It faced “a surge in work,” along with new constraints that have affected everyone during the pandemic, including travel limitations and lockdowns.

So they decided to turn to an artificial intelligence tool to speed up the hiring, according to records obtained by The Markup. The center, along with the Office of Management and the Division of Management Services, the background section of a statement of work said, were developing a “recruitment plan to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to assist in the time to hire process.” 

The agency ultimately chose to use HireVue, an online platform that allows employers to review asynchronously recorded video interviews and have recruits play video games as part of their application process. Over the years the platform has also offered a variety of AI features to automatically score candidates. HireVue, controversially, used to offer facial analysis to predict whether an applicant would be a good fit for an open job. In recent years, research has shown that facial recognition software is racially biased. In 2019, the company’s continued use of the technique led one member of its scientific advisory board to resign. It has since stopped using facial recognition.

The Markup used GovSpend, a database of procurement records for U.S. agencies at the state, local, and federal levels, to identify agencies that use HireVue. We also searched for agencies using Teramind and ActivTrak, both another kind of controversial software that allows employers to remotely monitor their workers’ browsing activities through screenshots and logs. The Markup contacted and filed public records requests with those 24 agencies to understand how they were using the software. 

Eleven public agencies, including the FDA, replied to The Markup with documents or confirmations that they had bought HireVue at some point since 2017. Of the six public agencies that replied to The Markup’s questions confirming that they actually used the software, all but one—Lake Travis Independent School District in Texas—confirmed they did not make use of the AI scoring features of the software. Documents and responses from 13 agencies confirmed that they purchased Teramind or ActivTrak at some point during the same time frame. 

HireVue CEO Kevin Parker said in a written statement that none of the company’s federal customers—which according to public records also include the Army and U.S. Customs and Border Protection—use its AI-driven prehire assessments

Despite its initial plan to leverage AI to speed up hiring, Michael Felberbaum, the FDA’s acting assistant commissioner for media affairs, wrote in an email to The Markup that “CDER has not used Hire Vue’s predictive tools.”

Felberbaum declined to elaborate on why the agency shifted tracks.

[T]here is a clear shift in this administration’s level of concern about these technologies, especially AI and Human Services.

Alex Engler, Brookings Institution fellow

Alex Engler, a fellow at The Brookings Institution who studies the impact of artificial intelligence on governance, said that “there is a clear shift in this administration’s level of concern about these technologies, especially AI and Human Services”—which might dampen the use of such tools internally. In April, the FTC published a blog post reminding technology companies that promising customers things like “100% unbiased hiring decisions” without the data to back it up could be considered deception and result in FTC enforcement. In October, the EEOC launched an initiative to examine and ensure that AI tools used in employment decisions—including hiring—comply with federal civil rights laws. 

According to Parker, the HireVue CEO, only about 10 percent of all of the company’s customers actually make use of the software’s AI-based preassessment options.

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Employee Monitoring

In November, the Los Angeles Times reported that use of software that allows companies to remotely monitor their employees has increased in popularity during the pandemic, as many office workers shifted to working from home.

Some public agencies were ahead of the curve.

The Orange County, Calif., Registrar of Voters has Teramind installed on all of its computers for election security purposes, according to Neal Kelley, the county’s chief election official. Emails obtained from the county show that it researched the product in 2019.

According to its promotional materials, Teramind lets managers record workers’ screens and keystrokes for future review. The company claims it can detect and prevent what it calls “insider threats” and monitor things like how many emails employees are sending and how often they’re uploading files to the internet.

Some agencies that The Markup reached out to responded that they only used monitoring software they purchased on specific employees.

Lake Wales Charter Schools in Florida used the monitoring software ActivTrak for just “a few months,” according to David Waldrop, the network manager there. The Markup obtained a purchase order for the software from the school system dated 2019. Like Teramind, ActivTrak lets bosses track what kinds of apps or websites workers are visiting, and for how long. It classifies and calculates how much time workers have spent being “productive” and “unproductive.”

We needed a solution that we could use to quietly monitor a small handful of computers to make sure the users were staying on task.

David Waldrop, Lake Wales Charter Schools

Waldrop wrote in an email, “​​We needed a solution that we could use to quietly monitor a small handful of computers to make sure the users were staying on task.”

Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has researched employee monitoring companies, said that companies sometimes market their apps as a way for employers to build cases against employees without them knowing or gather evidence in the event of a lawsuit. In their marketing materials, Teramind and ActivTrak emphasize that the purpose of their software is to “stimulate productivity and strengthen data security” and that transparency about its use can create “a more trusting, positive monitoring experience.”

The City of Bradford in Pennsylvania used Teramind to monitor a single employee. GovSpend records indicate the city paid for the software between 2017 and 2019. Chris Lucco, the city administrator, wrote in an email that the software was used for “internal investigative purposes” and that information gathered from its use later resulted in disciplinary action. 

At least one place used employee monitoring software it purchased on people other than employees.

Macomb Community Unit School District No. 185 in Illinois didn’t use ActivTrak to monitor any workers, but it did use the software to track a single student last year, according to Lisa Mooney, executive secretary at the district’s Administrative Service Center. Mooney said the district has since stopped using the software.

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Public records responses from agencies that purchased employee hiring or monitoring software

Tap the location to jump to the information for the state or federal entity

Credit: Joel Eastwood; Source: The Markup, 24 information request responses, November 2020–March 2021

Correction

An earlier version of this story misattributed a statistic about HireVue’s preassessment usage rates. The statistic was given by HireVue CEO Kevin Parker, not a spokesperson for HireVue.

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