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Should we consult with employees on technologies monitoring when returning to work?

Experts say the workforce must be ‘in the room’ and given a meaningful say about technologies introduced to monitor their return to work following the Covid-19 pandemic. Employees should be involved in the “design, construction, testing and implementation” of any technologies used to control or monitor their return to work as the Covid-19 lockdown eases, according to experts.

Employers must do more to foster trust with staff when using data-intensive systems to track their movements or behaviour, attendees at a panel debate entitled Back to work: tracking social distancing were told.

“We know that the use of technology can be really helpful,” said Andrew Pakes, director of communications and research at Prospect, a specialist professional science and research union. “ It can make people feel secure, it can give a record, you can ensure that safety happens – but we also know that technology introduced for one reason can end up being used for another reason.”

Pakes said employers must avoid laying the technological foundations in the name of public health for an infrastructure that allows for “much more nefarious or negative activities” afterwards, and that employees should be properly consulted as part of their organisation’s data protection impact assessment (DPIA) to circumvent the issue. We would argue that, under Article 35 of the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR], there should be consultation with data subjects and their representatives, and that consultation process – demonstrating that you have spoken to your workers, involved your unions – should happen before the technology is introduced,” he said. If you haven’t done the consultation as part of the DPIA, then you haven’t done a DPIA, and increasingly that’s going to become a contestable position.”

But when it comes to workplace technology deployments, the trust gap between employers and employees is not the same across jobs and professions, with different contexts manifesting different power relationships.

Gina Neff, associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: “It’s one thing to talk about professional work and going back as professionals, but it’s another when we are talking about highly surveilled low-wage workers, who already experience technology at work in a very different way. Neff said smartphones and other devices have long been viewed as an extension of white-collar workers’ professional identity, whereas waged or hourly workers’ use of the same devices is often tightly controlled. We have to take these differences in class and trust in technology already in play into account, Some of the tools and devices that I see being developed may sound great for highly motivated professional workers who feel altruistic in sharing their data, but they would absolutely be a nightmare in environments where people have already experienced tight digital control over their workloads. Privacy really has to be at the centre of the conversations we have about back-to-work technologies. There is no quick and easy technical panacea for solving the problems of back to work, but we absolutely know that if we don’t build tools and devices that allow people to be in charge and in control of their data, those won’t be effective.”

To mitigate the harmful effects of such uneven power relationships, Pakes repeated the need for widespread consultation with the workforce.

“There need to be ethical approvals within this, but how do we define what ‘ethical approval’ is?” he said. “Who gets to decide who is in the room to make decisions? You’ve seen this with AI [artificial intelligence] ethics and ethics committees – they tend to be drawn from C-suite or specialist or technical people, and we find this a lot with data protection impact assessments, too. It is regarded as a discrete, specialist process where the experts look at it. Rarely do they involve the workforce.”

Pakes said that without being involved in these conversations, “people will feel that the change is imposed on them”.


Article originally appeared on Computer Weekly.

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