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An employee tracking badge - a step too far?

28 September 2016


Are we over-watched and over-listened to by those who govern us or employ us?

Wellington City Council now operates closed-circuit television (CCTV) in the central city which is monitored by volunteers and the police.

CCTV operates in many buildings in Wellington, including hospitals supermarket and malls.

Indeed one of Wellington's most famous coffee shops, not far from Midland Park, has joined the list of those who monitor us and recently installed surveillance cameras as well.
Some surveillance cameras are now so powerful that at the Rugby World Cup they were able to zoom in on individual spectators and read text messages on their mobile phones, according to a police superintendent involved in the event.
That superintendent also expressed concern about possible privacy breaches resulting.

Now we are seeing the impact of increasingly sophisticated technology extend to the realm of monitoring employment.

Humanyze is a Boston firm that has used creative work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a monitoring badge for employees to wear at work.

The idea is that each employee wears a smart badge containing two microphones which performs voice analytics as well as detecting motion and has sensors to show where you are in the office.

The company asserts that in the next three to four years this technology will be used by the majority of employers.

Consulting firm Deloitte has used this new device in Canada. Already Deloitte has discovered the treadmills in the gym that employees lobbied for have hardly seen any action. No doubt they will be gone with alacrity.

The Bank of America is using the lanyard throughout its customer service centres. The bank has over 10,000 employees around the world.

The purpose of this sophisticated technology is to increase the profitability of business.

Are we likely to see this type of employee-monitoring on our own shores or would this be considered a breach of privacy in New Zealand?

The Privacy Act states that personal information shall not be collected by any agency unless the information is collected for a lawful purpose connected with a function or activity of that agency and that the information is necessary for that purpose.

The obvious question becomes, is your employer entitled to know how much you talk, whether you fidget or how often you are not at your desk? Arguably yes.

Some readers will be aware that GPS tracking devices are now used by employers to track the use of employer owned vehicles.

In a case involving Downer New Zealand, an employee, Robert Stuart, was accused of falsifying his timesheets. He was a mobile patrolman undertaking maintenance duties in Nelson City and surrounding areas.

GPS data from his vehicle contradicted the information Stuart had recorded. By way of explanation, Stuart claimed that sometimes when the GPS showed that his vehicle was at home he was in fact doing maintenance work on his equipment.

However, he did accept he had sometimes taken excessive lunch breaks. The Employment Relations Authority ultimately held that the employer's decision to dismiss relying on GPS information was reasonable.

But what about employees who interact with the public, whether in call centres or in retail, and are concerned about recording what the public have said?

When you ring a call centre you're often told that the call may be recorded, so many call centres already record conversations and notify the relevant public.

The device Humanyze has created, we are told, does not store conversations but rather meta data that can be analysed in a more aggregate context, so perhaps there is no problem there.

If Humanyze's device does become a fixture of New Zealand workplaces, employers would have to implement the use of this technology openly as the Privacy Act would require employees to give their consent for the use of such a device.

Enhanced monitoring of employees by advanced technology allows more specific actions to be observed. Developments of this kind will certainly not be isolated to American firms.

How would you feel about wearing this badge at work? Are you concerned about being constantly monitored on increasingly private details? Do you think that the ever more intensive monitoring is justified on the grounds of security and profitability or is it unjustifiably oppressive?

No doubt that this will become an increasingly contentious issue in times to come.

I am sure if George Orwell was still with us a sequel to 1984 would be in the pipeline.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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