Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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RFID and employee surveillance

Invasion of the privacy snatchers

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Financial Times, 2006

It was magic which enabled the exact location of Professor Dumbledore, Harry Potter and everyone else at Hogwarts to be pinpointed exactly on the fearsomely powerful Marauder's Map. But for employers wanting to know where their employees are at any time, there is no need for magic: there is a technological solution, radio frequency identification (RFID).

This powerful combination of a minute ID microchip with radio frequency scanning is already a part of everyday life, used in everything from London 's Oyster public transport card to the chips worn by runners in the Boston Marathon. It has transformed supply chain management and logistics, where RFID allows precise location of consignments. It is expected shortly to elbow out the familiar barcode in supermarket retailing.

“People are now recognising that RFID can substantially improve productivity, efficiency and accuracy,” says Ian Smith, chief executive of AIM UK , the British wing of the global Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility. He claims that RFID will become one of the most influential technologies in the next ten years. To maximise business take-up, AIM UK and the DTI have together launched a National RFID Centre to promote the technology.

RFID has received a significant boost from recent security and anti-terrorist concerns, with several countries' passports likely soon to carry RFID chips. But ironically this could also give the RFID industry its biggest headache, by reinforcing public fears about invasion of privacy. Already the potential power of RFID chips in retail goods in identifying individual behaviour patterns has led to the creation of the vocal US pro-privacy group CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. Opponents of RFID use scored another victory recently when a Californian elementary school near Sacramento was forced by parental pressure to abandon a scheme to monitor its children throughout the school day using RFID tags. Children shouldn't be treated as if they were livestock, one opponent claimed at the time.

This same argument is increasingly emerging as a point of contention in employment relations. The British general union GMB argued recently that the requirement on some workers in retail distribution centres to wear RFID tags (typically on their arms or wrists) was dehumanising, turning workplaces into ‘battery farms'. The issue of electronic surveillance of employees, including time taken for meal-breaks and toilet breaks, is now being taken up internationally by the Geneva-based Union Network International, the federation of service sector unions.

Unions point to practices such as embedding RFID chips in employees' uniforms (a recent development in a number of casinos in the US and Australia ) as unacceptable invasions of individual privacy. However, it is the use of RFID is connection with chip-embedded staff ID badges which currently represents the most widespread use of the technology in the workplace. Although designed simply to control access to premises, there is evidence that RFID data, once collected, are being used in some companies in other ways, including for disciplinary purposes. A study of six medium-to-large US companies in 2005 by RAND found that all were using the data to enforce rules governing employee conduct. None of the firms, however, had told their staff that data collected with access cards were being used for more than simply controlling entry locks.

Michael Blakemore, emeritus professor of geography at Durham University and author of research used by the GMB, argues that the RFID industry needs to do more to address ethical questions. “There are some deep privacy issues here. There's really not much of an engagement going on,” he says. For Ian Smith at AIM UK, however, public concern with RFID technology is reminiscent of the short-lived anxiety when barcodes first came in. “There's been so much incorrect information in the media, it has led to a certain amount of scare-mongering,” he maintains.

The extent of the right of employers to undertake RFID-enabled surveillance of their workforce remains to a large extent unclear. “This is such a nascent field, there's very little case law,” says Charles Kaplan, a New York-based partner of law firm Thelen Reid and Priest. He suggests that potentially problematic areas are likely to include monitoring of staff outside working hours and of those engaged in trade union activity. He also recommends transparency: “There might be issues when employees are not advised that they're being monitored,” he says.

In Europe , privacy concerns about RFID technology are being addressed by the EU's ‘Article 29' working party on data protection. In an interim report on the subject in January 2005, this body made a number of proposals to address privacy concerns, several of which have since attracted strong criticised from the industry. In practice, however, employment issues linked to RFID tagging are addressed at member state level under data protection procedures. In France , for example, the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL) advises employers to ensure that employees are fully briefed on any use being made of data from ID badges. It also calls for individual workers to have access to their own data records. In the UK , similar best practice has been published by the Information Commissioner's Office in its Employment Practices Code. This talks of the need to avoid ‘oppressive or demeaning' monitoring of employees.

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