Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Employee monitoring

I have been keeping track of the trend in technology development which could be deployed in employee monitoring. While there are justified reasons for such technology, it infringes on the personal privacy of employees. There has been concern worldwide on such privacy infringement. In Hong Kong, the Privacy Commissioner's Office is drawing up guidelines on employee monitoring. This is an issue for HR managers on conditions of service, general managers on office security, and also IT managers on the proper use of the technology.

The first thing that caught my attention is RFID, which includes the government employee ID smartcard many of us is carrying. The RFID technology is maturing and will soon become an everyday device. Its original purpose is inventory control. But it can also track and record movement of individuals who carry it, and then correlate the information to behaviour.

On a similar device, I just read an article on the use of identification bracelet in a newly opened theme park. All customers are issued the bracelet and the park rangers can track the where-about of everybody in the park using RFID technology, perfect for lost children and crowd control.

On a larger scale, a latest report on GPS phone reveals the possibility of territory-wide or even global employee monitoring. GPS-enabled cell phones can track users, and employers are eager to keep their mobile workers on an electronic leash. Bosses want the service, many consumers want the service, and the technology is becoming cheaper and more widely available. I append below an extract of the article published in CNET.

--begin quote--
Cell phones are giving employers new ways to check up on employees in the field and raising fresh workplace privacy concerns as a result. On the leading edge of the trend is Nextel Communications. The wireless provider began selling its Mobile Locator service last November, giving bosses an easy way to find employees who carry GPS-equipped cell phones.

Earlier this month, mobile tracking firm Xora showed off the latest version of its Nextel GPS (global positioning system) phone software. The company says 1,600 corporate customers have signed up for its services, including "geofences" technology that sets off an alarm at the office when field workers go to preprogrammed off-limits sites, such as a bar or a park.

Employee-tracking devices are gaining steam thanks to ever-more-accurate GPS technology and a U.S. mandate requiring wireless companies to develop ways for emergency workers to find the physical location of people who dial 911 on a cell phone.

Now new E911 emergency regulations governing wireless carriers promise to unleash profitable new GPS services, analysts say. To comply with the rules, carriers have begun running more accurate GPS technology capable of supporting a range of commercial services that go beyond emergency location. This high-accuracy infrastructure is setting the stage for high-accuracy location-based services.
Xora said hundreds of companies, including transportation giant U.S. Foodservice, have signed up for its GPS TimeTrack technology to monitor employee timesheets, jobs and locations using GPS-enabled Nextel phones.

GPS TimeTrack is a Java program that sits on a cell phone, and periodically requests latitude and longitude information from the phone's GPS system. At this point, Nextel is the only company that makes a GPS-enabled phone that works with the software, although the company expects the application to be supported by other phone makers.

Xora's product is taking off quickly. It was only July when the company said it signed its 1,000th GPS TimeTrack customer. "It's just incredible momentum," said Ananth Rani, the company's vice president of products and services. "We're adding about 200 a month."

As GPS technology proliferates, there's growing awareness among cell phone owners that the devices can track them. Nearly half of all wireless phone users and 55 percent of all wireless Internet users knew of some location-based services, according to a survey by In-Stat/MDR. More importantly to U.S. cell phone carriers, more than a third of those surveyed said they'd be willing to pay a monthly fee for location services.

Nevertheless, the surveillance capabilities of these phones are raising privacy concerns.

Every move you make, the boss is watching you -
One of the earliest examples of how an employer can walk this fine line is in Chicago, where about 500 city employees now carry geo-tracking phones, mainly as a tool to increase their productivity. The phones were distributed to employees only after their unions won several concessions, including allowing workers to shut down geo-tracking features during lunch time and after hours.

Another showdown over the technology erupted last year in Massachusetts, when the state highway department proposed issuing GPS-phones to snowplow drivers to achieve greater accountability from 2,200 independent contractors used to clear the roads. Hundreds of drivers threatened to sit out the first major snowfall of the year in protest, but eventually agreed to use the phones on a trial basis.

A San Diego-based consumer advocacy group, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, advises employers to only consider using the phones to achieve a legitimate business purpose, and not check up on potential loafers.

"There are good business reasons for using it," a representative for the group said. "But it must be coupled with a very robust privacy policy."
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