Privacy Fears Around Wearables In The Workplace

Wearable tech in the workplace is on the rise, let’s keep it under control


Given the relative nascence of high-street wearable tech, their ubiquity is evidence of a potentially enormous market. Smartwatches, fitness trackers and (albeit scarcely) smartglasses are growing in popularity and, by 2020, Gartner estimates that ‘over 35% of the population in mature markets will own at least one wearable electronic device’.

The applications of the tech has so far been largely for health and sports purposes. Professional sports organizations have been using them to monitor athletes on and off the field, whilst the more fitness-conscious members of society are using them to track their own health and fitness habits. And they have begun to seep through into the workplace, with many large employers offering them to their staff as part of ‘wellness’ programs.

Oil giants BP, for example, distributed more than 24,500 Fitbit fitness trackers to its North American staff in 2015 as part of one of these programs. According to the VP of operations at Spire Wellness, Kenny Kenol, about 40-50% of employers that have such programs will offer fitness trackers as an incentive. The motives behind offering trackers is somewhat questionable, though, with employers able to track not only their employees’ locations but their sleeping habits and heart rates. To those concerned with privacy, the developments will come as an unwelcome extension of employer snooping; smartphones already have employees essentially on round-the-clock service, and the primary worry is that wearable tech will further blur the already problematic distinction between work and private lives.

Generally, the wearable tech fulfils one of three functions. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, wearables are used as a safety precaution, and their application in potentially dangerous jobs has spiked. SmartCap - an Australian product designed to monitor the wearer’s brainwaves - can predict when a truck driver is becoming fatigued and approaching a ‘micro-sleep’, for example. Secondly, wearables can make training remote. XOEye has developed smartglasses that can capture and relay HD footage of complex problems encountered by those in construction, manufacturing and other remote jobs. The footage can then be assessed by an expert in real time and advice can be given accordingly. And, finally, they are often intended as logistics streamliners. Amazon’s warehouse employees, for example, wear GPS tags and are directed on the quickest possible route to their next product.

The key concern is the extension of the already intrusive surveillance of employees, particularly within big companies. UK-based data science consultancy Profusion performed research into 171 different metrics recorded by wearables to ascertain which would be useful to employers, with readings taken including heart rate, movement, and location. Those given the devices reported being uncomfortable with the constant tracking and its implications. ‘One participant found the idea of continuously checking his heart rate made him nervous,’ says Profusion Chief Executive Officer Mike Weston. Another ‘felt uncomfortable being under the microscope.’

Location tracking and audiovisual capture are perhaps the most troubling of the capabilities. MarketWatch use the example of an employee attending a union meeting. An employer could be accused of either spying on the meeting itself or, if the location tracking is accurate enough, determining exactly which of their employees had attended. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which employees are entirely comfortable with GPS tracking, particularly outside of working hours, and any company that implements trackers should do so with strict requirements that employees either leave them in the workplace or disable them upon leaving. If what you are doing makes your employees uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t be doing it, and any wearables will have to be put into use extremely delicately.

There is an incredibly fine line between data-driven efficiency and oppressive surveillance. Security fears around commercially available fitness trackers are a secondary concern, compounding the immediate discomfort of a wholesale loss of privacy. The sensitivity of the subject will slow progress, and up until now the programs that offer fitness trackers are opt-in rather than opt-out. Their use will only grow, though, and companies should be transparent about what information they intend to collect. The technology is still in its infancy, and perhaps allowing it to mature before thrusting it into the workplace would see far smoother implementation, whilst also not coming as such a shock to an employee’s sense of privacy. 


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