Skip to content
Site search
Data & Technology

Someone to watch over me

We are generating more data now than at any time in history. The phones in our pockets can track our movements, our search history is stored online and wearable devices monitor our heart rates. This information can lead to personalisation of services, which makes life simpler, but also leaves us vulnerable to surveillance and exploitation.

Matt Burgess
30 November 2017

Given the potential for data capture – and the monetisation of this information – it should be no surprise that sensors to track motion, heat, acceleration and more, are being embedded into everything around us.

“Lighting fixtures are an ideal carrier for internet of things (IoT) technology in smart buildings, providing a ubiquitous location for data collection, while delivering electric power to the sensors.” - Mark Milligan, Enlighted

The sensors are able to track how people move through buildings, allowing a company to identify the office spaces that are congested and those that are under-utilised. They can also measure energy consumption and communicate with items around them.

The privacy problem

Although these sensors can help employers and landlords make efficiency gains, this can be problematic for the staff who are being tracked. Being able to easily check where an employee is and the time they spend at their desk opens up potential privacy issues. “Unfortunately it is often treated as a replacement for proper management with conversations and a two-way relationship,” says Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at anti-surveillance organisation the Open Rights Group. “Using monitoring can send a message that employees are not trusted, which risks dehumanising relationships.” It also raises questions about employee participation: if a member of staff refuses to be tracked, will they be treated differently by bosses?

In 2016, journalists at the Daily Telegraph arrived at work to find that motion-tracking sensors had been fitted to their desks, unbeknown to them and without consultation. The newspaper’s owners wanted to check how long staff spent at their workstations. The decision provoked an angry backlash from staff, who felt their privacy had been invaded. In response, the trackers were removed.

“Pervasive and intrusive surveillance may actually be counterproductive to the effectiveness of such management and training,” Johnson-Williams adds. He argues that managers should engage with staff directly, rather than treat them as sources of data that can be analysed.

Extreme monitoring

A more extreme form of monitoring can be found at US vending machine company Three Square Market, which has inserted microchips into the hands of 50 of its 80 employees. It is not the first company to do this but the uptake is unusually high. Within the firm’s offices, it is possible to pay for meals in the canteen and log into computers with just a wave of the hand. Despite the advantages to this system, there is also the potential for the technology to be abused by overzealous bosses – which the firm says will not happen.

Johnson-Williams, while generally against the surveillance of employees, concedes that some monitoring is necessary within certain sectors. For instance, software systems that check whether staff in financial services are complying with regulations. However, for both the Open Rights Group and Enlighted, there is one key step employers should take when considering installing tracking sensors in the workplace: openness. “Thoughtful use of the application of technology, and transparency by the organisations using it, are very important,” says Milligan.

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.