Employers' tracking of workers raises privacy concerns

9:10 AM, Jan 16, 2012   |    comments
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By Duane Marsteller, The Tennessean

That company-issued cellphone, laptop or tablet could be keeping tabs on you away from the office.

More employers nationally are adopting technology to monitor their employees' productivity, efficiency and even whereabouts, with the scrutiny going beyond merely placing GPS units in company vehicles.

"Too much snooping is going on," said George Barrett, a civil rights attorney in Nashville. "Big Brother has arrived."

Some states have passed laws requiring employers to notify employees of surveillance, but Tennessee is not among them, said Elizabeth A. Alexander, a partner in Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein's local office.

"The law hasn't been fully developed on the issue of how far employers can go," she said.

That has left it up to the courts to set boundaries, but there have been few rulings.

The most recent was in New York, where a split appeals court upheld a state agency's secret use of a tracking device on an employee's personal car to investigate whether he was skipping work and falsifying time sheets. The employee is appealing.

"There are millions of company cell and smart phones out there, and all of them have GPS tracking, so now your boss can track you every minute of your private life," said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, an advocacy group in Princeton, N.J. "It's happening now."

Several local labor and employment attorneys said they haven't heard of any Middle Tennessee complaints as a result of high-tech tracking, but they think the day is fast approaching.

Expanding possibilities

Employee surveillance isn't new. Many employers now train closed-circuit cameras on cash registers, monitor employees' email and computer use, and track their vehicles - along with the drivers - via global positioning satellite technology.

Employers say the technology makes operations more productive and helps lower operating costs.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools uses GPS on buses and vehicles to track routes, analyze route times, respond to reports of late buses and help substitute drivers who are unfamiliar with routes, spokeswoman Olivia Brown said. It's also useful when officials need to find a particular vehicle or person in an emergency, she said.

That was the case when a bus was stolen last month: Officials used GPS to locate it in West Memphis, Ark., where it had been abandoned, Brown said.

But newer technologies allow employers to do much more, including:

» Turning their employees' smartphones into mobile time clocks, which employers can monitor and compare with other data to verify that employees actually worked the hours they've claimed.

» Using location positioning systems that combine satellite data, Wi-Fi and cell phone signals and mapping software to locate people indoors - even pinpointing what room they're in.

» Activating or uploading GPS-tracking applications on employees' smart phones and tablets.

Law trails technology

Just how many employers are doing that, and to what extent, no one really knows because there are no reporting requirements.

"There's no law that says it can't be done or that your boss has to tell you he's doing it," Maltby said.

That's partly because the primary federal digital privacy law hasn't been significantly updated since it was enacted in 1986, he said. Although there is "a serious effort" under way in Congress to update the law, the proposed changes would largely apply to government and not private employers.

Americans aren't the only ones wrestling with privacy issues and technology.

Controversy recently erupted in Sweden over some day care centers' use of GPS and other electronic tracking devices to monitor children during excursions. And a major Australian trade union launched a campaign last year to curb companies' monitoring of employees during work hours.

But all agree it will probably continue as smartphones, iPads and other devices become more ingrained in everyday life.

"In a lot of cases, younger folks are less concerned about it," said Stephen Montano, spokesman for Berry Tracking, which sells GPS tracking apps for mobile phones. "It's when you get into an older generation, where you find people who are not so keen on the idea. There's an attitude shift going on."

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