Tip

It's 10 pm. Should you know where your employees are?

What's happening?

As networks and handsets get smarter, businesses face the complex task of defining where the quest for efficiency ends and the right to privacy begins. Mobile phone usage, location, and patterns can be tracked to monitor, predict, and improve employee efficiency. While these tools add obvious value to the corporate bottom line, they place the burden squarely on the enterprise to address the employee's right to privacy.

Our Conclusions

Enterprises that provide employees with wireless devices and services can't duck the privacy issue. Many employees use company-funded smartphones for personal use during and after business hours. Until regulators, the courts, carriers, and equipment vendors provide clarity and options for protecting employee privacy, CIOs and IT managers are left to tiptoe through this minefield unassisted.

Action

Enterprises should address wireless privacy issues now, before they explode in the form of lawsuits or legislation. Elements to consider include:

  • Studying trends. As smart technology becomes more pervasive, industry trends will become obvious. One such example relates to the use of a telematics service, such as OnStar, to track the location of company-provided vehicles. Regulators have recently fined car rental companies for using telematics systems such as AirIQ to track vehicle inventory and customer habits without notifying their customers.

  • Identifying liability and responsibility.

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  • There are legal ramifications that should be assessed prior to employing usage and location monitoring. Courts have ruled that law enforcement officials can use wiretaps to turn two-way telematics systems, such as OnStar, into bugs. CIOs and IT managers are well advised to recognize all of the possible angles and who's liable in each scenario.

  • Creating an accurate inventory of company-provided wireless devices. It's impossible for an enterprise to understand its privacy issues without knowing which employee devices support tracking. Some carriers track phones using built-in GPS chips, while others use network technology. Assuming that non-GPS phones don't have privacy issues is an easy way to underestimate the scope and solution options. Enterprises should demand that carriers provide detailed information about the capabilities of each device and any monitoring in place.

  • Watching related legislation. In 2002, the FCC declined wireless industry requests that it create detailed rules regarding privacy. Without a uniform, industry-standard methodology, individual enterprises would be well advised to consider related topics before the Senate, Congress, and state lawmakers when crafting internal rules. One issue currently before the California Senate and other state's legislators addresses privacy guidelines for RFID tags. This topic confirms that legislators are concerned about wireless privacy, regardless of the application or underlying technology. Enterprises that ignore this and future legislation that could impact wireless privacy run the risk of having a law nicknamed after their company.

  • Developing corporate policies. Internal privacy policies should be reviewed and revised as needed to include language that properly addresses privacy issues and the activities monitored by smartphones and other devices. Enterprises should treat this subject carefully to ensure that employee morale is not negatively affected by perceived threats to privacy.

Discussion

Although monitoring employees' habits and locations can improve efficiency, CIOs and IT managers should consider the psychological, motivational, and legal ramifications of such actions to their top and bottom line. Balancing privacy with proactive monitoring is a challenge worth tackling. Wireless infrastructure vendors are now developing systems that give users greater control over acceptable monitoring levels. One example is Bell Labs' Privacy-Conscious Personalization technology, which lets individual users or an administrator set rules that automatically disable tracking between certain hours. Knowing that demand drives development, enterprises should urge their wireless carriers to make more systems like this available.

Bob Egan is president and CEO of Mobile Competency, a Providence, R.I.-based market analyst and consultancy. He can be contacted at bob@mobilecompetency.com or via phone at 401-241-4000.

This was first published in December 2004

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