Andrew Bibby



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 surveillance in the workplace

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in World of Work, 2007

Use of Radio frequency Identification microchips – RFID for short – is rapidly developing into a technology application of major global importance.

In logistics, RFID permits consignments to be individually monitored and tracked. In agriculture, RFID chips are used in ear tags for cattle and other livestock (and, later after slaughter, for meat tracking). In public transport, RFID-enabled pre-payment cards like Hong Kong's Octopus card are increasingly common, and are also finding additional uses as electronic ‘purses' to replace low-value cash transactions. In retailing, RFID tagging of individual products is predicted shortly to take over from barcodes. In business generally, RFID chips offer an extremely efficient way of asset tracking and inventory control.

RFID has a role, it seems, literally from cradle to grave. Some maternity hospitals are choosing, for safety purposes, to place RFID-tagged bracelets on newborn babies, and a number of old peoples' homes for similar reasons are tagging residents with dementia. And at least one company now customises RFID tags for placing with bodies in burial grounds.

What is this apparently ubiquitous technology? Each RFID tag is a tiny microchip, in some cases no larger than a grain of rice, which holds data about the tagged object. Tags have a small antenna attached, used to transmit the data to an RFID reader. Normally, RFID operates over short distances – as when Octopus card-holders gain entry to Hong Kong 's mass transit railway, for example – though some RFID tags can be read several kilometres away. Tags are typically passive, operating only when ‘woken up' by the reader, though microbattery-equipped active tags are also available.

It is when RFID is used in the workplace that the use of this technology begins to run into controversy. The main issue is over the prospect that employers will be able to use RFID to monitor, openly or covertly, the movements and activities of employees. This concern has been expressed by a number of national unions, as well as by Philip Jennings, general-secretary of Union Network International (UNI), whose organisation has recently drawn attention to growing electronic surveillance at work. “RFID can potentially mean that individuals are never able to feel genuinely off-duty, even during their breaks and time-off,” Mr Jennings says.

RFID is seen by unions, in other words, in much the same way as they view more established technology applications like video monitoring and email monitoring, as raising issues of employee privacy in the workplace.

How much cause do unions have for this concern? The use of RFID which attracts the biggest headlines is the idea that chips can be implanted under the human skin so that an individual becomes RFID-readable wherever they go. What might seem like a science fiction scenario is, in fact, already in limited use. One nightclub, for example, invites its members to have RFID chips implanted as a convenient way to gain admission and pay for drinks. Implanted chips are also being promoted as a valuable way of holding individuals' medical history, enabling medics to retrieve this information in emergencies. In the workplace context, however, implanting workers in this way is currently highly unusual. The most quoted example is from Mexico where eighteen officials working for the Mexican Attorney General's office voluntarily received implants to enable them automatically to access restricted areas.

Less headline-grabbing but much more widespread is the growing trend to put RFID chips into employee uniforms. Industry sources say that one company alone has sold twenty million such tags, which are designed to be able to withstand frequent washing at high temperatures and ironing without damage to the microchip. In due course, suppliers believe it will be possible to use threads actually woven into the cloth as RFID antennae.

In one example from Las Vegas a casino manager reportedly monitored the activities of his staff through the RFID chips in their uniforms, and later disciplined one member of staff for wasting time. However, there are other examples from the same industry where uniform tagging has been implemented satisfactorily. At the large Star City casino complex in Sydney, for instance, there were initial staff concerns when RFID tags were inserted in uniforms, but these seem to have been quickly overcome. The union there, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) says that since uniforms are not worn away from the premises there is no risk of staff being monitored when off-duty. The LHMU adds that the casino was, in any case, already a highly monitored environment with many hundreds of cameras in place.

In general, where employers are choosing to put RFID tags into uniforms the reason is generally for laundry management purposes. Garments laundered commercially have traditionally been tagged with alphanumeric or barcode tags, with hundreds of millions of identity tags of these kind sold each year. RFID is, in a sense, simply a development of this usage.

Nevertheless, RFID tags introduced for non-contentious purposes can subsequently be used in other ways, particularly for employee monitoring. By far the most widespread use of RFID in the workplace is for staff name badges and entry passes. Data collected from RFID chips embedded in staff passes can be used much more extensively. One IT company, for example, advertises software which integrates entry system data into a range of other reports, including records of staff attendance, overtime worked, absence and early leaving. The data are easily consolidated with HR employee records and with wage and payroll reports.

An admittedly small survey undertaken in the United States by the RAND Corporation might suggest that this capability is being widely exploited by employers. RAND surveyed six US organisations, all of which were found to link entry system data to other databases. What particularly concerned RAND 's researchers was the lack of transparency in how these data were being used. The report commented that “explicit, written policies about how such cards [staff entry cards] are used generally do not exist and employees are not being told about whatever policies are being followed”. It went on to make a more substantive point: “Using such systems has modified the traditional balance of personal convenience, workplace safety and security, and individual privacy, leading to the loss of ‘practical obscurity'. Such systems also raise challenges for the meaning and implementation of fair information practices.”

RAND 's researchers were clearly surprised at what they found. Their study suggests that any employee with an RFID-based entry card should be ‘uneasy' when reading their report.

What might be called ‘database creep' appears in many cases to be unthinking rather than deliberately planned by employers, who may simply be making use of facilities automatically supplied on software they have acquired. Nevertheless, Philip Jennings of UNI sees this as an area where union attention is needed. “For many workers, the sense that their employer may be surreptitiously monitoring them leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” he says. “Far from information technology helping to release human potential and build a knowledge society, it sometimes seems as though it is being used to reduce the potential for independent thought and action in the workplace.” UNI recently produced a Code of Good Practice covering RFID in the workplace.

The RFID industry believes that public concern about the technology is misplaced, and – as with barcodes – will be allayed as RFID becomes better known. The main RFID world trade body AIM Global has produced a privacy policy which (although produced primarily with consumer products in mind) asserts the right “to know when, where are why tags are being read”.

The growing use of RFID tags comes at a time when other technological changes are also raising concerns about employee privacy. Most notably, GPS satellite navigation, mobile telephony and wi-fi computer communication make it potentially much easier to track and monitor an individual's movements. Used well (for example, in monitoring the movements of health staff making home visits) these technologies can positively enhance employee safety. Used unthinkingly, they can add to employee stress. As one US truck driver monitored by GPS put it, “It's kind of like Big Brother is watching a little bit… I get testy in the deli when I'm waiting in line for coffee, because it's like, hey, they're watching me, I've got to go.”


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