A large European bank tracks its employees in work hours, using digital badges to analyse where they went, to whom they spoke and how stressed they were.

Is this creepy or clever?

According to the manufacturer of the badges, US company Hamanyze, the surveillance helped uncover why some bank branches were outperforming others by more than 300 per cent.

Discovering that employees at the “star” branches interacted more frequently – seeing and talking to each other more often – the bank redesigned its offices to encourage people to mix and offered group bonuses to encourage collaboration.

As a result, the lagging branches reportedly increased their sales performance by 11 per cent.

The results in this case seem to indicate this is a clever use of digital technology. The bank had a legitimate reason to track its employees, it was transparent about the process, and the employees could see some benefit from participating.

If it is secret, it’s unethical

Creepy tracking is the unethical use of the technology – where employees don’t know they are being monitored, where there is no benefit to them and the end result is an erosion of trust.

In the UK, for instance, employees at the Daily Telegraph were outraged when they discovered motion detectors had been installed under their desks without their knowledge or consent. They insisted on their removal.

Two years ago, Rio Tinto had to deny it was planning to use drones to conduct surveillance on its workers at a Pilbara mining site after some comments by an executive of Sodexo (which was under contract to provide facilities management to Rio Tinto). Those comments about drone use were later described as “conceptual”.

Employee surveillance during work hours is allowed in Australia if it relates to work and the workers have been informed about it, however legislation varies between the states and territories.

Deciding where ethical and privacy boundaries lie is difficult. It depends on individual sensibilities, but the ground also keeps shifting. As a society, we are accepting increasing amounts of monitoring, from psychometric assessments and drug tests, to the recording of keystrokes, to the monitoring of personal social media accounts.

Co-head of advice and education at The Ethics Centre, John Neil, says legislation is too slow to keep up with rapidly advancing technologies and changing social attitudes.

“It is difficult to set binding rules that stand the test of time,” he says. “Organisations need guiding principles to ensure they are using technologies in an ethical way”.

Guiding principles are required

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have developed ethical principles for artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. These state the development of such technologies must include: protecting human rights, prioritising and employing established metrics for measuring wellbeing; ensuring designers and operators of new technologies are accountable; making processes transparent; minimising the risks of misuse.

Principles such as these can help businesses and people distinguish between what is right, and what is merely legal (for now).

Putting aside the fact that employee monitoring is allowed by law, the key to whether workers accept it depends on whether they think it will be good for them as individuals, says US futurist Edie Weiner.

People may not mind their movements being tracked at work if they believe the information is being used to improve the working environment and will benefit them, personally.

“But if it was about figuring out how to replace them with a machine, I think they would really care about it,” says Weiner, President and CEO of The Future Hunters. Weiner was in Sydney recently to speak at the SingularityU Australia Summit, held by the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University

When it comes to privacy considerations, Weiner applies a formula to understand how people accept intrusion. She says privacy equals:

  1. Your age
  2. Multiplied by your technophilia (love of technology)
  3. Divided by your technophobia (fear of technology)
  4. Multiplied by your control over the information being collected
  5. Multiplied again by the returns for giving up that privacy.

“Each person figures out the formula and, if the returns for what they are giving up is not worth it, then they will see that as an invasion of their privacy,” she says.

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.