Watercooler: Nowhere to hide

Are we just being paranoid about employee surveillance?

Credit: Kagan McLeod

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

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.