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The ever-moving line on privacy

It's never been easier for authorities and employers to monitor their workforce

By Todd Humber

Where do we draw the line in the workplace when it comes to privacy?

That’s a fair question to ask in light of two stories in this issue of Canadian HR Reporter. The first, one of our cover stories, looks at the Toronto Transit Commission’s decision to implement random testing of employees for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and phencycline.

The second looks at a case involving a union for federal correctional officers who want access to medical information for inmates whose bodily fluids they come into contact with — yes, you read that right. Prison guards are apparently “regularly” attacked with urine, feces and blood. (Keep that in mind the next time you feel like complaining about that loud cubicle neighbour who likes to clip his toes during lunch.)

In the former case, a union is fighting to protect the privacy of workers and in the latter a union is fighting to expose private information of inmates. Labour relations is never boring.

But back to the line — where is it drawn or, more importantly, where should it be drawn? Nobody would argue that it’s OK for a bus driver to be intoxicated or stoned on the job. Nor would most people think it OK for a prison guard to be unknowingly exposed to a disease such as HIV.

The federal guards will likely get their legislation — seven of the 10 provinces already have laws permitting access to medical information in these circumstances. The TTC situation is a bit murkier —Canadian courts have long history of taking a dim view of random testing absent evidence of a serious substance abuse problem.

But with changing societal norms, what constitutes a serious problem? Marijuana is on the verge of being legalized in Canada — and use of it is already commonplace. It’s not unusual at all to walk the streets of any community and smell pot. People use it openly in public, often in full view of police officers, with little or no ramification.

Some think pot is far safer than alcohol — people who would never get behind the wheel drunk thing perhaps a little buzzed driving isn’t so bad. Legalization will only increase the number of people using it and the frequency with which it is consumed.

That’s bound to have implications for health and safety in the workplace.

But let’s return to that line one more time — how much expectation for privacy do we actually have? In the United States, the average person is photographed 75 times per day. That includes things like gas stations, traffic cameras, public transit, coffee shops, parking garages, elevators — the list goes on and on.  In London, the figure has been pegged as high as 300 — that British city is blanketed with surveillance cameras.

Anyone with an iPhone knows how easy it is to track your every movement — smartphones have made it very easy to spy on people. With the right software, employers can easily determine where employees are at any given moment and how fast they are travelling. Marketers use this information all the time to deliver targeted messages.

Social media sites make a living on people sharing personal data, including photographs, videos and favourite haunts. More than 650 billion photos are uploaded every year.

And the technology for identifying people in all these photos is getting scary good — Facebook can figure out it’s you in a photograph even if it can’t see your face. It relies on your clothing, body shape and posture to figure it out. Yann Lecun, head of artificial intelligence at Facebook, told New Scientist that there are a lot of cues that can be used.

“People have characteristic aspects, even if you look at them from the back,” he said. “For example, you can recognize (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg very easily, because he always wears a gray T-shirt.”

It’s never been easier for authorities and employers to monitor their workforce. And there seems to be no end to the appetite among the population for sharing personal information online. So it’s a safe bet that the line for what is acceptable and not when it comes to privacy is going to keep moving and blurring.

For employers, there are no solid or easy answers — the privacy realm will remain murky for a long time.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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