Mobile workforce tracking: still scary

11 Sep 2008

Employers in Australia are fitting company cars with GPS devices to track their mobile workforce, which is raising yet again the privacy implications of keeping tabs on your employees.

The devil, as always, is in the details. For example, one tracker solution in Australia - the GoFinder Reporter - generates detailed daily time sheets showing every stop made, parked time, driving time, distance covered, maximum speed and estimated fuel consumption. All of the data can be mapped on apps like Google Earth, and employers can monitor the position of any vehicle in near real time (with updates every five minutes).

Stated benefits include cost savings by ensuring honest overtime and fuel expense claims, and preventing moonlighting and vehicle theft. It's also touted as a safety app for employees in case they're lost or involved in an accident.

However - and inevitably - privacy experts and workers unions say the GPS trackers are a violation of privacy, because employers don't always switch off the tracker during off-duty hours. A Telstra employee committed suicide in March allegedly because he was depressed that his company was constantly watching him and didn't trust him, according to Thursday's Sydney Morning Herald.

GoFinder founder Graham Thomas dismissed such claims as 'a load of bullocks' [sic], and that employees generally didn't mind being tracked because they could use it to prove whether their bosses were making them work extra hours.

Still, none of this should surprise anyone. For as long as I've been covering the industry, employee privacy as always been at loggerheads with new comms technologies designed to create a more efficient, productive business in part by making it harder for the employee to completely disengage with work.

In the early days of unified communications, for example, vendors were proposing mobile solutions that would transform your dual-mode GSM/DECT phone into a PBX extension that followed you everywhere, so that you never missed a business call and were always reachable by your boss, no matter where you were or what you were doing. Some came with management features so that the user could block business-related calls after hours, but admittedly at the risk of angering their supervisor who couldn't reach them. And as the call management policies were set by the company, the boss had final say over how much control you had.

Needless to say, office employees that I spoke to about this idea didn't take to the idea. Different technology, same concerns: they don't want to give the boss too much control over them. Sure, the company has every right to know if you're really on the job when the company car is parked outside a sports bar or a strip club. But employees at the very least want assurances that the technology won't be used against them unfairly, and that they can opt out once the work day is done.

Companies employing fleet tracking need to keep this in mind, especially as local regulators start looking at the ramifications of location-based services and to what extent they comply with or violate privacy laws.

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