After WTC Attacks, More Surveillance at Work

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Biometric scanners, in use at an increasing number of workplaces, match computer records to the geometry of a user's hand.

Photo by: Alan Saly

Biometric scanners, in use at an increasing number of workplaces, match computer records to the geometry of a user's hand.

Since the 1980s, workplace monitoring has grown in popularity because of the decreasing cost and widespread availability of tracking technology. A 2005 survey by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute found that keystroke monitoring was used by 36 percent of companies queried. Fifty-five percent of companies perused employee e-mail messages and 76 percent tracked websites visited by employees.

But the monitoring of employees goes beyond what they do at their desk. Global positioning systems (GPS), radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and biometric identifiers such as palm, fingerprint and iris scanners are increasingly used for security and timekeeping at the workplace. Their popularity has surged in the post-September 11 era, driven by security concerns and society’s deepening relationship with technology. Some workers feel this technology has soured the workplace atmosphere and given employers unprecedented access to their personal lives. “Workplace surveillance has become standard operating procedure today,” Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, says. “You ought to be more concerned about your boss than the National Security Agency.” In New York City, on-the-job monitoring is increasingly practiced by private and, especially, public employers.

The largest New York City workplace-monitoring initiative is CityTime, an overhaul of the payroll system for 160,000 municipal employees from 80 agencies. Launched in 1998 by the Office of Payroll Administration (OPA) with an initial price tag of $68 million, CityTime was intended to streamline timekeeping via digitization: Workers fill out their timesheets electronically, clocking in and out with a biometric hand-geometry reader that prevents “buddy punching”—when a worker punches in for an absent colleague. The biometric readers use laser imaging to generate a three-dimensional profile of a hand, which is used to clock in. A private audit conducted for OPA in 2002 claims CityTime will generate $60 million in annual savings by reducing “hard” (paper and transportation of documents) and “soft” (staffing and time) costs. A decade later, the project’s price tag has risen to half a billion dollars under the guidance of Science Applications International Corp., a major San Diegobased contractor that has handled billions in Pentagon business but whose track record includes cost overruns and allegations of substandard workmanship. More than 13,000 workers at 18 city agencies currently use the system. Many are vehemently opposed to CityTime, citing an inflexible time clock that rounds up by a quarter of an hour, unnecessary busywork for supervisors and—particularly—the use of hand-geometry scanners for employee identification. CityTime “goes way beyond the pale in terms of any acceptable kind of surveillance,” says Jon Forster, first vice president of Local 375, the branch of municipal union DC 37 that represents technical workers. “What the administration doesn’t get is that their implementation of surveillance technologies is incredibly demoralizing. People are enraged. They feel like they’re not being trusted.”

While the Bloomberg administration is hunting for budget cuts amid shrinking tax revenues, OPA Executive Director Joel Bondy told a City Council hearing in May that his agency has not considered imposing a cap on the cost of SAIC’s CityTime contract, which could run through 2021. There are questions about that contract that go beyond cost. While OPA insists that the CityTime contract was awarded competitively, it appears that SAIC got the CityTime account in 2002 when SAIC acquired Paradigm4, a spin-of f from the original CityTime contractor, Systemhouse. Meanwhile, Bondy worked from 2002 to 2004 as a subcontractor for Spherion, a Florida firm that OPA is paying $60 million to monitor SAIC’s work on CityTime. Bondy denies any conflict. Some City Councilmembers are considering asking for a moratorium on work by or payments to SAIC.

Elsewhere in the city, public university employees are also subject to monitoring. The City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice adopted biometric timekeeping for white- and blue-collar employees in early 2007. Unlike CityTime, John Jay’s ADI Bios Scan II finger-recognition system uses fingerprint data to identify individual employees. According to a February 2007 internal memo, John Jay’s new system will guard against buddy punching and tampering with college records.

Elsewhere in the CUNY system, staff members are rebelling against a new computer policy that would permit university officials to monitor online course discussions and email conversations between professors and students without getting the parties’ consent. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents more than 20,000 CUNY faculty and staff members, has filed a grievance against the public university system over the policy. CUNY officials say the new policy will protect internal security and guard against systemwide network failures, while the PSC says it impinges on confidential research and violates a contract provision that allows faculty 24 hours’ notice before a class visit by management. Biometric scanners and e-mail monitoring are only two of a set of technologies whose use has expanded in recent years. As far back as 1999, nurses at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Ridgewood jousted with management over the use of identification badges embedded with radio frequency identification chips (RFID). Though hospital officials justified RFID as a simple way to locate staff members, the nurses’ union viewed such technology as an invasion of privacy and an attempt by management to track workers’ every move. Though the New York State Nurses Association filed a grievance against the hospital over RFID use, claiming it was an unjustified form of surveillance and violated their contract, an arbitrator ruled that the technology did not violate the terms of the nurses’ contract.

No New York City hospital is known to have contemplated such technology for patients. But RFID chips were included as a possible data collection device in the original contract for CityTime. According to recent City Council testimony by union members, the NYPD has begun issuing employee identification cards with RFID chips, although they have not yet been activated.

GPS, originally developed by the U.S. military, is an even more accurate method of tracking location than RFID and is also proliferating in New York City. City agencies have GPS technology installed in workers’ city-issued cell phones, and in the past have used this capability to check up on workers. In 2007, a carpenter working for the Department of Education was fired when a GPS chip in his city-issued cell phone revealed he had been falsifying time cards. Many people would have no argument with a technology aimed at catching cheating city workers. City employees, however, counter that there are less-intrusive ways to keep them honest. Meanwhile, GPS is also being forced upon nonpublic employees—to reduce paperwork rather than catch shirking workers. In October, the Taxi Workers Alliance led a two-day drivers’ strike in opposition to the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s plan to equip yellow cabs with credit-card readers and video displays fitted with GPS. Some drivers viewed the GPS as an unnecessary and invasive tracking scheme and took umbrage at the 5 percent surcharge for credit-card payments. New York is one of many states that have no laws regulating biometric screening. Local 375, the city technical workers’ union, has proposed legislation that would bar private and public employers from requiring the use of biometrics, tracking or any other “invasive technology” as a condition of employment, with exceptions for public safety.