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  • Jackson Clarence

The Fluid Value of Privacy: Workplace and Consumer Surveillance

Modern businesses and homes have been made inseparable from the technological appliances that now fill every office and room. Multiple laptops, countless tablets, more phones than ears, a chokingly thick layer of Wi-Fi and even artificial Clouds now form the backbone of not only the modern economy, but also the modern family residence.

Amongst the screens and updates however, lays the persistent struggle between privacy rights and the march of ever advancing features and conveniences. Voice recognition, touch screens and sensory interfaces all require a little something more than buttons and switches, and that something is you.

Inherent in all this is the reality that information will be gathered about you personally, with most of it recorded (however briefly) and used for data analysis (however anonymously). While many consumers are unphased by these advancements over the past decade likely due to the almost normalised incursion of meta-data retention, city wide CCTV and companies like Google and Facebook recording personal information and searches – others, in particular businesses are increasingly concerned over the growing acceptance of personal surveillance and privacy reductions.

Infamously, you may recall in early 2015 the Samsung Privacy incident, where the Japanese-based company experienced increased media and consumer scrutiny over the revelation that their Smart TVs voice recognition technology was capturing and sending data to 3rd parties. This was particularly alerting to businesses with Smart TVs installed in board rooms or offices, where conversations and correspondence were potentially recorded and analysed.

Despite concerns, experts like Jake Goldenfein from the University of Melbourne and Luke Hopewell from online technology magazine Gizmodo stress that the voice recognition technology is less recording what we say, but how we say it. The underlying principle behind placing surveillance capabilities in modern Smart TV’s, according to Samsung and LG, is to ensure that the next Smart TV is more responsive and convenient to human voice and touch. Regardless, this information is still being sent to third parties assuming the Smart TV is connected to the Internet and whether or not consumers are 100% supportive of this remains to be seen.

Tech companies aren’t the only entities experimenting with privacy compromises – Councils are taking to increased measures to raise revenue, while some companies have taken to recording their own employees.

Some inner-city Councils in Sydney and Melbourne have placed motion detection devices in parking bays that monitor how long your vehicle has been there. If the car overstays, a parking officer is alerted and a fine is given. Placing surveillance equipment without the consent of the people being surveyed seems to be a big ‘no’ in the eyes of employees however. The UK’s Daily Telegraph installed wireless devices to monitor whether or not employees were at their desks, an action that didn’t go down well with the journalists, who were not previously informed of the installation. By the end of the day the company had removed the devices and stated it would promise to ‘keep employees informed of their decisions’.

Not all employees and businesses are against the idea of workplace surveillance however. It should come as no surprise that Google has employed the technique for a number of years, with other companies like Bank of America and General Motors following suit. Sensor devices are placed on employees, which include Bluetooth, a microphone (which doesn’t record audio, but rather the tone of their voice, speaking speed and volume), a motion sensor to record movement and an infrared beam. The sensors are meant to examine how people communicate, when they are most productive (for example at a desk, or in groups), whether or not they are dominant or secondary in conversations, as well as posture and proximity to other employees. Privacy concerns are quashed somewhat, as once the information is turned into metadata, the identities are removed from the system.

At the end of the day, the key issue with modern workplace surveillance is whether or not those being observed know they are being recorded and analysed. Issues and concerns are likely to rise in such circumstances where surveillance is done disingenuously, or in the case of Samsung – buried amongst the terms and conditions. In the alternative, workplaces and consumers seem unwilling (or unable) to give up modern technology and infrastructure and instead resort to letting employers and businesses know themselves when the line has been crossed.

Ultimately, employees need to feel comfortable with the idea of being tracked, even if its anonymously – and that may take a while.

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