Essay: Wearable Technology at Work: Privacy and Performance
23 May 2016
Wearable Technology at Work: Privacy and Performance
Wearable devices are predicted to become as common as the cell phone. When cell phones started to become commonplace, companies had to consider how these new devices could be utilized to improve communication and streamline corporate operations. Although the growth rates of wearable devices are expected to grow in similar fashion to the cell phone, their deployment within an organization must be carefully analyzed due to the risks and possible problems associated with widespread adoption. Even though wearable technology is still in its infancy stage, employers can utilize currently available technology to monitor employees health activity, sleep cycles, physical location, body movements, posture, stress levels, blood glucose levels, and even tone of voice in a conversation. Due to the private and sensitive nature of the information collected, companies are treading cautiously when it comes to how they gather and collect data from wearable devices. Technology developers and early adopters state that they only want to use the data to help improve performance of their current workforce, but many have also mentioned the high potential for abuse that could emerge after widespread acceptance of wearable technology is the norm. Without an adequate policy that maintains employee privacy rights and protects employees from employer mandated performance standards, employers risk losing a valuable tool which has been demonstrated to increase employee productivity and job satisfaction while boosting bottom line corporate profits.
Wearable technology is defined as “electronic technologies or computers that are incorporated into items of clothing and accessories which can comfortably be worn on the body” (Tehrani). Devices such as the Apple Watch and FitBit are both examples of wearable technology that is built into a fashionable device and collects data about the person wearing the device. This device then transmits that data over the Internet or via other radio signals so that the data can be evaluated. Daniel Burrus of Burrus Research stated that in 2014 there was one million wearable devices being worn in the USA and by the year 2018 he projects that number to be 300 million (Burrus). Another research firm named Markets & Markets estimates that by the year 2020 the wearable technology market size will reach 31.27 billion (Markets). With such widespread use, where are all the devices? Currently most of the devices are health tracking devices and wrist wear, but other technology such as portable ECG monitors, Google Glass, and even a contact lens which monitors blood glucose levels are gaining market share. Most of these devices are being utilized for personal use, but employers are starting to realize the potential that wearable devices have for improving the performance and health of their workforce.
From an employer’s point of view, wearable devices provide information about employee activity which could never before be quantified. Since the spawn of the modern day company, businesses of all sizes and in all sectors have been making business decisions based off of data that they collect and analyze. Take for example a retail sales outlet, they collect information about their customers purchasing habits so they can target specific customer groups with advertisements that appeal to their personal shopping habits. Wearable technology gives them this same opportunity, but instead of enhancing the customer experience, the data is used to improve employee performance. Since data about employee performance has been unquantifiable up to this point, the potential for companies to improve profits by increasing employee productivity is a brand new frontier which has the potential of revolutionizing the way a business operates. Early adopters of wearable technology have already reported significant improvements within their workforce, and companies around the world are starting to consider how they can put wearable devices to work within their organizations.
A recent study which surveyed 300 IT Decision makers in the UK reported that 29% of UK businesses had deployed some form of wearable technology. The reasons given for deploying wearables were “employee well-being (16%), instant access to information (15%), and improved customer service (14%)” (Schutte). Additionally, data from wearable technology has been utilized by employers to learn how “human behaviors impact productivity, performance, well-being and job satisfaction” (Schutte). In the retail field, a grocer in the UK signed a $9 million dollar deal with a wearable technology company to deploy devices in over 300 locations. Over a five year period this grocer made consistent improvements in employee productivity and was able to reduce the number of employees needed to operate a 40,000 square foot store by 18% (Wilson). Over in the industrial sector, fatigue-monitoring devices have been deployed by construction companies so that management receives instant notification if a backhoe driver or heavy machinery operator is starting to fall asleep while operating machinery (Wilson). And in the medical field, first responders are starting to use wearable technology to instantly pull up medical records of a patient, saving valuable time when a patient’s life is on the line (Suit). Technology and research companies are taking it a step further and using the data collected from wearable devices to learn more about group interactions, develop behavioral activity models of employees, quantify attributes of top performing employees and start to study what characteristics are prevalent in positive group interaction. To put it all in perspective, a recent study titled the Human Cloud At Work led by Chris Bauer of the University of London found that by utilizing wearable technologies employers were able to increase productivity 8.5% while also increasing overall job satisfaction by 3.5% (Rackspace). Although the studies and real-world applications demonstrate a huge potential for wearable technology to revolutionize the way we work, critics are raising awareness of possible human rights violations when it comes to privacy and employee performance.
Since wearable devices are small in size, they have a limited capacity to store data locally. To make up for this disadvantage, wearable devices stay constantly connected to the Internet so they can broadcast data to remote cloud servers where it can be stored and analyzed. This poses both device and network related security risks and due to the sensitive nature of the data being transmitted it’s becoming a growing concern for privacy advocates and security experts alike. Hagai Bar-El, the Chief Technology Officer for a California based private security company states that “data collected by wearables is only as protected as the network that holds it” (Hunt). With the number of reported computer related data breaches going up every year (Breach) the data compiled from the use of wearables is extremely vulnerable to hackers or other intruders who can breach a network and collect the data stored within it. But network breaches are not the only concern when it comes to privacy. Companies have been shifting towards data retention policies which collect and store data indefinitely and sometimes even allow for the sale or transfer of data to third parties. These policies are typically hidden deep within the Terms of Service which you must agree to when you initially purchase or use the device. For example, upon purchasing and registering your Google Glass, you must consent to the Terms of Service which allows Google to “reproduce, modify, publicly display, distribute, and generally use this data to promote and enhance existing products and create new ones” (Anderson). This combined threat of lean corporate privacy policies and data breaches due to unsecured networks require us to give up some of our rights to privacy when we adopt wearable technology.
Alongside the growing concern over privacy rights, a less discussed but equally important issue is the ability of companies to make hiring and firing decisions from data collected by wearable devices. Currently companies in the states are treading very cautiously when it comes to how they collect and analyze performance related data (Haggin), but this may not continue to be the case. Since companies write their own policy when it comes to internal affairs, they can change policy at any point and start to use the previously collected data to discriminate against employees who can’t achieve certain performance metrics measured by the devices. These employees risk not only the loss of their job, but could also find it difficult to find new work since employers could be utilizing the technology for pre-employment screening tests which would show a person’s potential for reaching job-related performance benchmarks. If employers are permitted to mandate the use of wearable technology, we would possibly create a group of undesirables who can’t achieve the required performance levels and therefore are unable to find future employment in their field. Brent Blum, the wearable technology lead for research firm Accenture Technology Labs predicts that “certain employee relations problems might arise in assigning tasks, determining job duties, or designing promotion structure based on data collected through the use of wearable technology” (Bloomberg). Blum goes on to predict there will be companies who clearly violate privacy and ethical boundaries and that “politicians, unions, and the legal community will need to get involved to define how the data is used and what use cases are appropriate” (Bloomberg).
Before we are able to enter a serious discussion regarding the future of wearable technology in the workplace, we need sufficient data which analyzes the potential problems associated with widespread deployment. With the technology still being in its infancy stages, it seems that most available research funding is being used to highlight the benefits of wearables in the workforce. If decisions are made from currently available data, we risk policies based around a set of studies which have not fully analyzed the effects that these devices could have on our society. To give adequate time to collect data and run tests which attempt to measure the problems and potentials of wearables in the workforce we should consider enacting a set of policies which prohibit employers from making hiring or firing decisions with data collected from wearable devices and give employees the right to opt-out of any employer sponsored programs which utilize wearable technology. This set of policies would protect individual employees from the privacy and performance problems that come with the use of wearable devices while still allowing employers to continue research into how they can improve their companies through the use of wearable technology programs.
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