The Conversation

Electronic leashes for the wayward employee

Well, this isn't creepy at all:

Hitachi, the big electronics company based in Japan, is manufacturing and selling to corporations a device intended to increase efficiency in the workplace. It has a rather bland and generic-sounding name: the Hitachi Business Microscope.

But what it is capable of doing ... well, just imagine being followed around the office or the factory all day by the snoopiest boss in the world. Even into the restroom.

Sounds great.  Tell me more, CNN!

The device looks like an employee ID badge that most companies issue. Workers are instructed to wear it in the office.

Embedded inside each badge, according to Hitachi, are "infrared sensors, an accelerometer, a microphone sensor and a wireless communication device."

Hitachi says that the badges record and transmit to management "who talks to whom, how often, where and how energetically."

Dang.  What kind of information does it track?

It tracks everything.

Oh.

If you get up to walk around the office a lot, the badge sends information to management about how often you do it, and where you go.

If you stop to talk with people throughout the day, the badge transmits who you're talking to (by reading your co-workers' badges), and for how long.

Do you contribute at meetings, or just sit there? Either way, the badge tells your bosses.

"I'll be in my bunk." - Barack Obama

The stated intention of this is to increase productivity and get the most out of employees.

But a case can be made that, however much we worry that the National Security Agency may be peeking into our lives, we should be just as concerned -- or more -- about the potential for corporations to become their own, private NSAs.

And there's not much, in the future, that employees will be able to do about it. With government surveillance, the public can complain that the state has no right to be scrutinizing the lives of its citizens so intrusively. But corporations can make the argument that supervisors have always been encouraged to keep an eye on how workers are spending their time when they're on the clock -- and that electronic tools such as the Business Microscope are simply a 21st-century way to do that.

That's an odd way to look at the contrast between this little brainstorm and government surveillance.  On the contrary, all of the public's "complaining" about the Surveillance State has thus far gotten President Obama to say he'll ease off on monitoring foreigners, which isn't quite what we were complaining about.  Oh, and he's going to outsource storage of metadata, perhaps to the surly hackers of Belarus that were hired to build part of the bug circus and security-risk jamboree known as Healthcare.gov, or someone equally trustworthy.

But if you find out a company's going to use Hitachi's Business Colonoscope to monitor the precise distance between yourself and your co-workers as you discuss the latest developments on "Downton Abbey" at the water cooler, you don't have to work for them.  Maybe every corporation will decide this is a good idea and give us little choice, but I suspect it's more likely they'll understand how much employee morale would suffer, how insulting people would find it, and conclude it's not worth the expense.  

It's true that employers are paying for your time when you're on the clock, but micro-monitoring is not a good way to ensure maximum productivity.  It's far better to create an environment in which employees have incentives to perform.  Supervision is not the same thing as surveillance.  It would not bode well for the future of this great and free land if people became accustomed to constant surveillance from both government and private entities.  We need to start putting some feet down before this goes any further.


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