Surprise – you’re on camera

Video in the workplace and the advent of wearable technologies

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

We live in a society where most people carry around smartphones with cameras. This has major implications for privacy in the workplace since it is now possible to take photographs or film people and have the images uploaded to social media within seconds.

Nevertheless, some might argue this has the potential to increase the levels of civility in society because people are more likely to behave appropriately if they know they could be filmed or photographed at any time. For example, the police now need to be extra careful when dealing with members of the public because their actions can easily be filmed by bystanders and then be subject to increased public scrutiny.

There are other benefits to being filmed, particularly in the workplace. According to a recent Harvard Business Review blog post by Ethan Bernstein, when employees know they are being filmed, they tend to be more honest and conscientious. This appears to be an example of the “Hawthorne effect,” which is the phenomenon whereby people improve their performance simply because they believe they are being or may be watched and observed by others.

However, there are some potential problems in the workplace where employees decide to film fellow employees or customers. This can have serious implications for privacy and confidentiality not only with respect to filming in locker room or washroom facilities, but also in relation to private conversations with customers or clients, confidential business meetings, patents, trade secrets or access to secure facilities.

When the employer is doing the filming

There can also be problems where the employer is the party doing the filming. Canadian privacy legislation and arbitral jurisprudence provides that any video surveillance in the workplace must be conducted for a legitimate purpose, and customers, employees and visitors should be informed of the fact they are being filmed.

Employers must also use minimally intrusive means of gathering video surveillance. For example, if video surveillance is sufficient to deter theft, it would be overkill to also include audio recordings. And where video surveillance is undertaken for a specific purpose such as employee safety, video footage shouldn’t be used for other purposes such as conducting employee discipline.

Knowing when you’re being filmed

Regardless of who is doing the filming, however, an important consideration is knowing when one is being filmed. While people won’t always notice a smartphone being pointed at them, in general it is fairly obvious to most people when they’re being photographed or filmed.

When someone is holding a smartphone in a certain way, people at least realize they may be being filmed and have an opportunity to raise objections about their images being captured and govern their conduct accordingly.

The rise of wearable technologies

However, new wearable technologies like Google Glass make it much more difficult to know when you’re being filmed. They also make it much quicker and easier to capture video than ever before.

While it is possible in some situations to tell when you're being filmed using Google Glass, it isn’t always immediately obvious when one is being filmed.

There is a barely audible chime indicating when video is being captured, and others can see the illuminated screen during filming or other uses. Other telltale signs are when a user utters the commands, “OK Glass, take a picture,” “OK Glass, record a video,” or presses a button on the Glass to begin recording.

Privacy advocates initially had some concerns about the possibility of combining gadgets like Google Glass with facial recognition software. While Google has assured the public they have no plans to offer such functionality, some people worry that someone might be able to develop a facial recognition application without Google’s approval.

While wearable technologies like Google Glass offer exciting possibilities and have the potential to enhance employee productivity, communications and access to information, there are potential pitfalls associated with the use of these devices in the workplace. Time will tell if this technology becomes popular, or if people will consider it too “creepy.”

Nevertheless, employers should consider the privacy implications of wearable technology in the workplace and develop guidelines and policies accordingly. They also need to work with employees to determine appropriate responses in an environment where customers, suppliers or visitors could potentially be wearing such devices and be secretly capturing video.

Aside from the privacy and confidentiality implications of this technology, there are also questions about the issue of distracted driving and etiquette surrounding business meetings and social gatherings in the workplace.

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