How would you feel if you found out that your company was trying to spy on you? We know that organisations have access to our personal data – from Facebook to our local grocery store – and for the most part studies show that people have accepted that a loss of privacy and employee monitoring is an inevitable consequence of modern life.
But surely drone surveillance is a step too far?
At the Rio Tinto mining camp in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, it has come to light that the global multinational have contracted a facilities management company called Sodexo to dramatically expand surveillance and employee monitoring and ‘capture individual insights’ from staff at the mining camps, according to reporting by The Guardian.
The investigation began after a Sodexo executive approached the newspaper about publishing an article about the new project. Since then, both Rio Tinto and Sodexo have rapidly back-pedalled as a consequence of criticism about the potential risk as well as legal and ethical experts.
Spending the majority of their work and leisure time within the company-controlled camps, means that almost every aspect of the lives of Rio Tinto personnel are defined in relation to the company. Already in place in the camps are a variety of information systems that help towards the smooth running of the camp, such as GPS tracking logs of vehicle movements, CCTV cameras, as well as smart water systems that notify operators about declining water supplies..
Over time, Sodexo plans to add sensors to light poles and rubbish bins, and “have plans to start experimenting with drones,” according to Keith Weston, vice-president for mining global sales and business development at Sodexo.
While these initiatives aren’t necessarily sinister in and of themselves, it’s the potential to intrude into people’s personal lives that has caused concern.
The corporation’s workforce has been caught by surprise by these developments, telling The Guardian that they haven’t been informed or approached for consent, and have expressed concern that the new project was a sign of further automation of the workforce.
Why monitor staff behaviour?
Of course, employers have legitimate reasons to monitor employee-related activities in the workplace. This includes the need to evaluate employees performance, limit potential legal liability and to protect employees through ensuring the implementation of appropriate health and safety procedures. In industries where physical safety is a heightened concern, such a mining, as well as the security management and IT industries where companies must ensure that proprietary information is protected, monitoring is particularly important.
According to Weston, the Sodexo project presents the organisation with the opportunity to capture insights on where individual employees are spending their time and money – and so improve the quality of their lives.
While this may appear laudable and part of the company’s obligations towards the mental and physical well-being of their employees – many legal and ethics experts have another perspective.
For example, Sodexo says that smart waste disposal units would enable their central operating team to be alerted when bins need emptying. But civil liberty advocates have raised concerns about this level of employee monitoring, as smart bins are “capable of monitoring not just the quantity of rubbish, but what exactly is being thrown away.”
How do we feel about it?
In the US, a study by the Pew Research Centre found that across all demographic groups, by a two-to-one margin (54 per cent to 24 per cent) a majority of Americans would find the installation of surveillance cameras and corresponding retention of data to be acceptable. However one fifth (21 per cent) say their consideration of this tradeoff would depend on the circumstances, such as ensuring that monitoring occurred across the board, and that employees were aware of the extent.
In Australia, The Privacy Act 1988 does not specifically cover the issue of workplace surveillance – and laws differ on a federal, state, or territory level. In fact, there are relatively few states that have comprehensive regulation on employee monitoring.
But it seems the jury is still out on our stance on employee monitoring, and most research comes to the conclusion that we’re willing to forgo a little more of our privacy at work – as long as we’re aware of it.