Tech­nol­ogy can now track your ev­ery move—but should em­ploy­ers be al­lowed to use it for mon­i­tor­ing their work­ers?

BC Business Magazine - - Contents - by Steve Burgess

Are we just be­ing para­noid about em­ployee sur­veil­lance?

It may be time for a mod­ern up­date of that clas­sic scene from old gang­ster flicks. It’s the one where the gang is holed up at the hide­out. “Some­body at dis table,” the boss says, look­ing around, “is a rat.”

The cir­cle of hoods eye each other. Jimmy the Weasel starts to sweat—an un­for­tu­nate habit. Things are look­ing bad for Jimmy. Mean­while, no one sus­pects the real spy in the room. When the cops bust in and round up the gang, the chief turns to the in­former with a thumbs-up. “Good work,” he says. Sit­ting qui­etly in the cor­ner, the cell­phone says noth­ing. Just do­ing its job.

Any­body who has ever watched a true-crime show knows what crim­i­nals of­ten seem to for­get—your phone is rat­ting you out ev­ery minute, track­ing your move­ments and ru­in­ing your al­i­bis. So­cial me­dia apps like Snapchat have taken this sur­veil­lance to an­other level with ser­vices such as Snap Map that al­low friends to fol­low each other’s move­ments with creepy speci­ficity. Lately this tech­no­log­i­cal spy­ing has also been en­ter­ing the work­place—even those work­places that are not seedy apart­ments full of gun-tot­ing goom­bahs on the lam.

Many em­ploy­ees of Wis­con­sin tech com­pany Three Square Mar­ket have agreed to have RFID (ra­dio fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion) chips im­planted in their hands be­tween the thumb and in­dex fin­ger, al­low­ing them to en­ter the build­ing, buy food at the cafe­te­ria, shoot death rays at at­tack­ing su­pervil­lains,

ac­cess de­vices, et cetera. Some staff opted to sport an RFID ring in­stead of get­ting an im­plant, ap­par­ently be­cause wear­ing a pow­er­ful ring is not as fright­en­ing.

Not ev­ery em­ployee is as ready to em­brace new tech­nol­ogy. In 2015, Cal­i­for­nia woman Myrna Arias sued her em­ployer, In­ter­mex Wire Trans­fer LLC, for more than half a mil­lion dol­lars, al­leg­ing that she was wrong­fully fired for dis­abling a GPS pro­gram called Xora that al­lowed the com­pany to track her move­ments around the clock via her com­pany-is­sued phone. The suit was later set­tled out of court. No one knows where Arias went with the money.

Cal­i­for­nia’s laws against pri­vacy in­va­sion are stricter than those of most ju­ris­dic­tions. Canadian laws al­low for track­ing staff for rea­son­able pur­poses and with the con­sent of the em­ployee. But a worker—say, a driver—who does not want to be tracked would likely have a dif­fi­cult time mak­ing a le­gal case for com­plete on-the-job pri­vacy. In 2012, then–b.c. in­for­ma­tion and pri­vacy com­mis­sioner Elizabeth Den­ham ruled that a com­pany had the right to track its ser­vice ve­hi­cles, es­pe­cially on an in­ter­mit­tent ba­sis. How­ever, Den­ham went on to say that con­stant mon­i­tor­ing of em­ployee where­abouts, on the job or off, would raise more se­ri­ous con­cerns for her of­fice.

In March 2015, four months af­ter the District of Saanich be­gan us­ing a pro­gram called Spec­tor 360 that closely mon­i­tored em­ployee com­puter ac­tiv­ity, Den­ham ruled that the pro­gram vi­o­lated the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion and Pro­tec­tion of Pri­vacy Act, in part be­cause em­ploy­ees had not been ad­e­quately in­formed.

Few is­sues play into para­noia quite like track­ing, as the mak­ers of the Roomba vac­uum re­cently found out. Colin An­gle, co-founder and CEO of Roomba man­u­fac­turer irobot Corp., let slip in an in­ter­view that the plucky lit­tle ro­botic dirt munch­ers aren’t just de­signed for clean­ing floors and giv­ing cats lifts in Youtube videos. The Roomba, An­gle said, is also map­ping your home and could pro­vide that map to com­pa­nies like Ap­ple Inc., Ama­zon.com Inc. and Al­pha­bet Inc. Ama­zon CEO Jeff Be­zos would then know the ex­act lo­ca­tion of your couch and cre­denza. Next step: global dom­i­na­tion and en­slave­ment by our Roomba mas­ters. At least the slave quar­ters would be tidy.

In re­sponse to the out­cry that fol­lowed, An­gle and irobot has­tened to re­as­sure cus­tomers that such maps would not be sold but only pro­vided to com­pa­nies as a cour­tesy, with the home­owner’s per­mis­sion. Be­zos couldn’t just barge in—you’d have to in­vite him. Which doesn’t change the fact that your ro­bot vac­uum—prob­a­bly the first ro­bot you’ve ever owned—is qui­etly mak­ing a map of your home. But pay no at­ten­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Be­zos, these aren’t the droids you’re look­ing for. Move along.

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