How would you feel if your company was able to spy on you; to track your movements and behaviour day and night?
The idea may seem like it was lifted from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 that described a future world of omnipresent surveillance and public manipulation. It has moved from idea to reality, however, for employees at several companies in the US and the UK. Spy technology has officially arrived at the office.
As reported in the UK press this week, at least four companies, including a major bank and part of Britain’s NHS has taken to using what are called “sociometric badges” designed to be worn by their employees. Last year, we reported on how Rio Tinto was employing drones and CCTV cameras to monitor their workforce but “wearable technology” moves surveillance into an even more personal sphere.
The size of a credit card, the devices measure activity and sleep patterns and include a microphone that, although it doesn’t record the content of conversations, analyses the tone, speed and volume of a person’s voice. The badges reveal to an employer who is talking to whom and for how long and indicates stress levels based on heart rate and voice inflection.
The badge is one of a number of products to come out of digital analytics company, Humanyze, a spin-off from MIT’s media lab. Working in the area of people analytics, Humanyze told Business Insider that the badge is intended not to spy, but to help businesses learn more about their staff than a mere survey or observation can provide and so improve their organisation and productivity.
“By mining that data, you can actually get very detailed information on how people are communicating, how physiologically aroused people are, and can make predictions about how productive and happy they are at work,” Ben Waber, CEO at Humanyze told The Times.
Nevertheless, privacy campaigners have been horrified by the development and say that we are hurtling headlong towards Orwell’s Big Brother society. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how such data could be used for more sinister purposes, such as getting rid of ageing or ailing staff.
Humanyze rejects these concerns and insists that companies are not provided with results that identify individual employees, only with anonymous, aggregated data. Employees, however, can access information relating to their own behaviour patterns which, the company argues, motivates them to make changes in their own lives.
What responsibilities do employers have?
As far back as 2005, US professor Adam Moore was pointing out in his book Information Ethics: Privacy, Property and Power, that as technologies grow ever more complex and established within society, ethical problems associated with their use will increase. However, most research on privacy has not addressed broader organisational, managerial and social issues, such as how firms treat personally identifiable information or what role and responsibilities managers have.
As technologies have become more complex and established within society, ethical problems associated with these issues have tended to increase.
Petrina Coventry, industry professor and director of development with Adelaide University Faculty of Professions and Business School, points out that such monitoring gives employers access to personal information about employees that may be sensitive and that employees may wish to keep private. “Employers need to think carefully about the way in which they collect, use and disclose information they obtain from employees,” says Coventry.
In Australia Commonwealth privacy laws regulate the collection and handling of personal information. Known as the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs), they apply to all private sector businesses with an annual turnover of more than $3 million, all private health service providers nationally, and a limited range of small businesses and all Australian government agencies.
Nevertheless, employers do have access to personal information about employees that may be sensitive and that employees may wish to keep private, or consider an attempt to spy by their company. And employers need to think about the way in which they collect, use and disclose information they obtain from employees.
Tips for dealing with employee’s personal information
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s website contains information on good practice for organisations dealing with employees’ personal details.
These guidelines include:
- limiting the collection of information
- providing notice to individuals about the potential collection, use and disclosure of personal information
- disclosing personal information
- keeping personal information accurate, complete and up-to-date
- keeping personal information secure
- providing access to personal information.