Summary:

Sensors, data analysis and connectivity can be a boon when it comes to preventing a variety of ills (and illnesses) but the combo can also be used in less benign ways. Do employees need more rights?

Packing some RFID tags and a few sensors into a plastic bracelet might hold the key to better hand washing. MIT’s Technology Review profiled IntelligentM, one of many companies trying to help stop the spread of infections in hospitals by using sensors and connectivity to police the hand-washing habits of doctors.

But IntelligentM and it’s ilk are just another example of how employers and maybe even governments will use connectivity plus sensors for surveillance. The question then becomes, how much of our privacy are we willing to trade for the benefits of lowering infections in a hospital setting, or catching criminals or even improving traffic safety by monitoring cars?

The IntelligentM bracelet contains RFID tags and an accelerometer and can track when, where and how well a doctor washes his or her hands. The bracelet vibrates, for example, to let the doctor know when their hand washing effort is sufficient.

The RFID tags interact with receivers near the sinks and at the doors of patient’s rooms to communicate with the bracelet. The data collected is uploaded at the end of the shift. Because the IntelligentM bracelet relies on RFID, it is somewhat less intrusive, tracking hand washing at sinks and at the doors to patient rooms, as opposed to the real-time movements of the doctor around the hospital.

However, these bracelets are part of a larger shift of monitoring workers to ensure compliance with company procedures and perhaps ensuring productivity. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how some employers are using physical trackers placed on employees and around the office from a company called Sociometrics to track how people move around and interact.

And last March at our Structure:Data conference my colleague Mathew Ingram got into a debate with the CEO of Cataphoroa, which analyzes employee emails, IMs and other electronic messages for risky or illegal behavior. But instead of looking for trigger words, the company’s software mines the entire text to understand the “digital tone” of the employee. That data can be used to prevent risk, but also search for the company’s “best” managers.

And that’s the rub in many of these cases: more information — as long as it’s interpreted accurately — will benefit those who perform well or fit within the norms of the group. However, those using the data have their own norms and value judgments they bring to the analysis, which puts the scrutinized at risk. It’s hard to argue with promoting hand washing in hospitals. However if that same data sees a doctor going into a patient room more times than the hospital’s best practices call for to talk to a patient, then that same doctor might get penalized.

The courts have thus far been fine with employers monitoring employee email and communications in the workplace, but not with requiring a password to someone’s Facebook account. As more and more sensor-based surveillance occurs we’re going to need to new rights for employees, especially around employers applying their morals and norms to the workplace.

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