Workplace Privacy And IoT Collide

When so many people have a stake in seeing the Internet of Things truly take off, it’s natural that the potentially unsavory aspects of an all-connected world might be played down in press releases or trade show coverage. However, one group of journalists found out the hard way that IoT can sometimes be a double-edged sword.

After coming into work this week, employees at The Daily Telegraph found small black boxes affixed to the undersides of their desks and workstations, The Independent reported. After checking the boxes out and spying the name “OccupEye,” a quick Google search led the employees to the company’s site and details on the boxes — heat- and motion-tracking devices that measured when employees were using their desks and when they weren’t. The data was sent back to a a processing center, where OccupEye claims they can help offices improve “workspace utilization.”

The reactions ranged from the comical to the outraged among the employees of The Daily Telegraph itself, but all remained fairly negative. ZDNet speculated whether the little black boxes were being used to measure employees’ bathroom breaks, or whether they were being used as a basis to downsize the company using Big Data as evidence.

When employees asked their higher-ups about the boxes, they were met with blasé responses at first — claims of improvements to workplace efficiency and energy conservation efforts. However, it didn’t take long for Daily Telegraph management to fold on its backing for the sensors, after employees filed formal complaints to both human resources and the National Union of Journalists. In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson from the company explained that the decision to pull the OccupEye boxes will be followed by another strictly conservational effort.

“In the light of feedback we have received from staff today, it has been decided to withdraw the under-desk sensors immediately,” the spokesperson said. “We will be looking at alternative ways to gather the environmental sustainability data we need and will keep staff in touch with any new proposals.”

It’s difficult to say who is in the wrong in this story. Does the fault lie with management for installing the boxes in the first place, or was it their lack of notice that gave employees the right to protest their constant surveillance in the office? There is something to be said for privacy and personal space, even in the workplace, but are body heat sensors overstepping those bounds, even for companies that should be embracing a high-tech perspective?

On the other hand, could the employees be overreacting to what’s simply an advance in workplace management technology? Neil Steele, an OccupEye client account manager, told The Independent that its products have been in use by the National Health Service and other municipal authorities around the U.K. (although the company is careful to phrase its mission as one of monitoring “the presence of people within space” rather than the people themselves).

“There are tens of thousands of OccupEye systems in place, and this is the first example of a client not being able to deploy the system or having to take it out because of staff feedback,” Steele said. “We fully understand that staff arriving into work to find a device under their desk would be suspicious and fear the worst, but the system is completely benign, and it doesn’t track individuals … We are not Big Brother.”

So, why the uproar at The Daily Telegraph in particular? The Daily Telegraph‘s journalistic, skeptical employee group may certainly have contributed to some of the energy of the protests, but failing to include employees beforehand in a potentially uncomfortable leap into the future of IoT in the workplace was undoubtedly the catalyst.


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