The technological age in which we live is absolutely incredible. The things that we are capable of accomplishing as machines talk to other machines, the improved efficiencies of our daily lives with smart devices and automation, the ability to communicate with those across the world in order to share and advance thought, invention, and society – it is unlike any other time in human history. As someone who works in these technological fields providing communication systems that put the swiftly evolving advances into work spaces, education spaces, and other commercial environments, it’s a thrilling time to be alive because the things being done during design inception, even as little as six months prior to the project’s completion, could already be considered outdated by the time the system is finished.
Yet, with the thrilling nature of all these technologies at our fingertips, the question constantly nags at me as to the personal responsibility of every technologist involved in the creation and implementation of these solutions. Just because we can create and do things with technology, does it mean that we should? With each new tech startup unicorn that gains widespread adoption, the public willingly gives up more of their personal information to be tracked, monitored, studied, and turned into a series of ones and zeroes in the name of commerce. End user license agreements (EULA’s) are agreed to with the simple click of a button without any of us giving it a second thought.
Are we giving up this control of our personal information because the new economic model of “as-a-service” has left us with no option? Is it that giving up what we may consider to be a minor amount of information to a corporation to do with that they see fit (so long as it’s disclosed in the fine print) in order to add a certain level of convenience to our lives seems reasonable? Is the onus of responsibility to disclose and discuss this with the end users to ensure they understand it on the shoulders of the creators, the vendors, the consultants, the salespeople, or the service providers? Or, perhaps it’s the responsibility of the end users to get the information for themselves prior to making the determination whether these solutions are best for them?
Name, Rank, and Social Security
In regards to the issue of personal privacy in the modern world, it is constantly astounding just how much personal information is volunteered by consumers. Companies know your location, who you’re talking to, where you’re going, your shopping habits, your social connections – both physical and digital, what information you’re inquiring about, and what media you’re consuming. Privacy has become a fictional fleeting notion both at home and in the workplace.
The technological services that have been developed and are being implemented for uses such as in-building wayfinding are considered a universal good. Allowing people to avoid stopping to ask for directions and instead providing turn-by-turn instructions on a personal device to get you from point A to point B offers immense value to any visitor or new employee. However, consider the fact that with a service providing instructions based on where you are at any moment, the licenser of that software, and possibly the original developer, may also have access to the information regarding your location, as well as any associated application(s) they are using to determine that location.
For example, a wayfinding app may be determining your location based on which wireless access point your phone is connecting to in the building. As you move throughout the building the specific access point you’re connecting to changes letting them analyze which way you’re going so they can provide better information. However, let’s say in this example that in order to get you where you need to go they require access to your calendar to pull your appointment location. This could potentially give them access not only to your appointment location, but also who else is supposed to be in that appointment as well as their contact information.
Most employees connect their devices to the network when they get to work. It’s a better and faster connection, in most cases, than relying on the cellular service. By doing so, an employer can monitor your device’s name and MAC address, giving them the ability to match a device with an employee. At what point does an employer start to use an employee’s ongoing location information to dictate their quality of work? Are they at their desk enough throughout the day? Are they in meetings too many hours? Are they working from home too often? These could be the determining factors of your next promotion or raise.
Your Health, Your Data
The same concerns arise with the drive for a healthier work environment. Employers are attempting to encourage their staff to have more balanced lives that include exercise and making smarter food choices. Some employers may even give out fitness trackers in an attempt to help the employees monitor their activity or even incentivize the employees to be more active by gamifying it and having the office compete over who gets the most steps in a given period.
It’s been studied and documented that an unhealthy employee has greater potential to cost a company money. This is due to lost production time because of illness, the likelihood of more frequent doctor visits, and even the potential link between poor physical health resulting in poor psychological health dragging an employee’s productivity down and potentially their coworkers along with them. However, so long as a job did not require a physical and health screening to apply, does the employer have the right to look at this information and potentially use it as a basis of reward or reprimand? There are protections in place to prevent an employer from firing individuals just because they are sick, but by providing more personal information about yourself to your employer in the name of company culture, an ethical quandary does begin to emerge as to how that data might be used.
This isn’t to say that finding ways to promote physical health is bad. There is also immense potential that the employer could put this same health data to use for you and find ways to help you get healthier. This could be accomplished through hiring a trainer to come into the office once or twice a week to run exercise classes, changing snack options in the break room, or finding ways to help you manage your time better so that you have the potential to do more in the hours you’re not in the office, improving your home life.
In either case – positive or negative – the issues that arise are do you want your employer to have this information? How will this information be used to evaluate your performance? Is there any documentation regarding the requirement to participate? And what is the employer able do with your personal information once they have it? These questions become more vital as we enter a time when companies are starting to embed chips in their employees.
Go here for part 2 of this piece where we look at the more of the ethical questions in offering today’s technology.