Workplace Surveillance and Privacy: What Are Your Rights?

by Reese Kimmons, MS ISA

The increasing use of emerging technology that combines artificial intelligence with electronic monitoring in the workplace to surveil employees is raising concerns among Australian officials and privacy advocates.

More and more companies are utilizing these new systems to monitor employee activity, identify and report violations of safety regulations, and detect potential hazards.

Concerns stem from the fact that Australian law has not been updated to address and regulate the scope of use of this type of electronic monitoring that continuously monitors employee behavior.

Without legislation in place to set limits on the use of AI and CCTV as surveillance tools, unscrupulous managers and the companies selling this technology could violate the privacy boundaries of Australian employees without fear of legal repercussions.

Surveillance System Capabilities

cctv monitoring the workplace

Combining AI with CCTV to create a system that monitors workers and conditions in the workplace is a relatively new concept. The images collected by cameras are evaluated by an AI component that has the ability to immediately identify and report hazards and safety violations.

Intenseye and Facial Recognition

One particular system currently being used by some Australian businesses is known as Intenseye. According to an article published by the ABC, David Lemon, a US-based customer success manager for Intenseye, said the system can be “trained” to identify safety violations and other breaches based on concerns expressed by the client.

Intenseye’s cloud-based platform has the capability to blur the faces of employees or to make them appear as stick figures to mask their identities. Lemon said that clients sometimes ask that the facial blurring feature be disabled. He told reporters that doing this could lead to the invasion of employee privacy. Lemon said that his company has “built-in safety features that we cannot or will not overcome.”

Audits and the Need for More Legislation

According to Lemon, Intenseye has been audited by the AI Ethics Lab. Company management has also consulted with attorneys to ensure that they are in compliance with applicable privacy laws and regulations in the countries where their services are offered.

Intenseye is just one company offering this emerging technology. Other providers of this service may not share the privacy concerns expressed by Lemon, thus the need for new legislation and regulations.

Current Privacy Regulations (or Lack Thereof)

The Australian Privacy Act 1988 is under review to identify needed changes and additions. Per government officials, the emergence of AI technology is one reason why the review is being conducted. 

While the Act does currently require employers to notify employees if they will be collecting personal information, it doesn’t specifically cover surveillance in the workplace. Further evidencing the need for clarification and regulatory action, the Office of Australian Information Commissioner also verified that the commissioner’s office has received questions and complaints regarding workplace surveillance.

University of Technology Sydney’s emerging technology professor Nicholas Davis expressed his concerns to reporters regarding the increase in workplace surveillance. Professor Davis told that the emergence and growth in popularity of AI/CCTV surveillance systems was raising questions regarding employers’ responsibility for any AI “mistakes,” the safety culture in the workplace, and surveillance without consent. 

Setting Limits and Ethical Standards

Professor Davis affirmed that current Australian laws are not set up to regulate the use of this technology, nor do they set limits on how it can be used. He is currently working with a team at his university that includes Ed Santow, Australia’s former Human Rights Commissioner. 

The team is developing a document which will provide examples of language that, if included in privacy law, would establish limits on how surveillance systems with facial recognition technology can be used.

Professor Davis told that he believes “employers increasingly have to be very rigorous and skeptical and challenging about products that are marketed to them [where] it’s not quite clear how they work.” Davis went on to confirm the need for “much more dynamic, flexible, and appropriate fit-for-purpose regulation for these kinds of technologies.”

Although there is currently a lack of legislation addressing emerging AI/CCTV system usage, there is a tool that has been specifically created to allow Australian businesses to determine whether their AI systems meet ethical, if not legal, standards. The Artificial Intelligence Ethics Framework is available through the Department of Industry, Science, and Resources.

Possible Side Effects of Behavioral Monitoring

cctv in workplace

In addition to the invasion of privacy, both Professor Davis and Jim Stanford, the Australia Institute’s director of the Centre of Future Work, expressed concerns about the potential effects of constant monitoring of employees in the workplace. Both said that employees who know they are being monitored will alter their behavior to please their employers. 

While taking care to please one’s employer doesn’t sound like a harmful side effect, Stanford, who co-authored a report about electronic surveillance in the Australian workplace, also said the continuous employee tracking had the potential to impact their health in the long run.

Final Thoughts…

As it is with governments of other nations, Australia’s government cannot proactively anticipate technological advancements and create legislation to regulate them before they exist. Governments are, and always have been, reactive rather than proactive when it comes to new technology and responding to emerging potential threats.

Per Jim Stanford, the current inability to regulate organizational surveillance activities opens the AI/CCTV technology up for misuse without fear of legal repercussions. Stanford told that, “Australia’s regulatory regime is badly, badly lagging the technology.”

The good news is that the Privacy Act is being reviewed in preparation for new legislation that would address privacy expectations and companies’ usage of AI/CCTV to surveil their employees. Until it is revised, the hope is that technology providers will, like Intenseye has apparently done, establish and abide by company policies that protect the privacy of those being monitored.

For now, businesses considering implementation of an AI/CCTV surveillance system can evaluate their plans using the Artificial Intelligence Ethics Framework. Organizations are not, however, required to utilize this resource, nor are there any legal consequences for failing to do so.

Those concerned about employee privacy relating to emerging issues with surveillance technology are encouraged to contact lawmakers and urge them to move forward expeditiously with new legislation that would protect the fundamental rights and privacy of Australian workers.

About the Author:

Reese Kimmons is an experienced IT executive with an AAS in Applications Programming, a BS in IT Management and an MS in Information Security and Assurance. During his time in the IT industry, Reese has earned certifications in ethical hacking, forensics investigations, ISO/GIAC, and Cisco networking.

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