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The Big Brother employer

Is using biometric scanning systems a violation of employee privacy or a reasonable business practice?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s nine o’clock. Do you know where your employees are?

If you’re Toronto law firm McCague Borlack LLP, you do. At least, you know when they’re in the office and when they’re not, thanks to a new fingerprint-scanning system that keeps track of the comings and goings of employees.

The system requires all employees — except for lawyers, who are in and out of the office frequently with clients and court proceedings — to check into the office by swiping their finger over an electronic reader. When they leave, they must swipe again. The firm says it will improve security measures in the office as well as standardize work hours for employees by ensuring staff won’t be paid for slipping out early or taking long lunches. However, an anonymous group of bloggers who say they’re secretaries for the firm are saying the system discriminates against non-lawyer staff and violates their privacy.

Biometric systems that scan fingers and record information have been pilloried in the past for violating privacy, since they store information about the individual scanned. However, in most cases, it’s not the fingerprint being scanned, but rather a slightly more anonymous algorithm that’s based on measurements of the digit. However, the algorithm would still be information unique to the individual.

A few years ago, two Alberta businesses installed finger-scanning technology to keep track of when employees arrived and left. When employees challenged the use of the technology, the office of Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner found that, in both cases, the information stored was personal information but was collected solely for the management of the employment relationship and the business. As long as employees were told of the reason for the collection and the information was properly protected, collecting the thumbscans wasn’t a privacy violation.

Biometric technology has slowly gained some acceptance at workplaces, but still faces resistance from some who still think it’s an invasion of privacy. There are still some instances where using cameras to monitor employees is challenged, so a technology that keeps track of whether employees are in the office or not still faces bumps in the road to acceptance.

If scanning someone’s finger and storing individualized data based on the scan is personal information, is that too much to ask of employees? Is monitoring their movement in and out of the office a little too much Big Brother? Or does it make business sense for an employer to know whether its employees are putting in full days or not, or are even available in the office at any particular time?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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