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Pros and cons of smartphone sensor data analysis

With the help of smartphone sensor data, IT can learn about its users' behaviors and improve operations and workflows, but collecting this data has some notable risks as well.

Today's smartphones include a variety of sensors that measure user behavior, and for a long time, organizations haven't taken advantage of the data these sensors generate.

One exception to this underutilization is GPS data, which can track users, enable location as an authentication factor and help organizations locate lost devices. GPS data is only a fraction of the overall smartphone sensor data, however, and the data in aggregate could offer organizations numerous advantages, such as improved security -- especially if IT combines the data with machine learning and other AI technologies.

This data collection may come at the cost of privacy for the end users, however, so organizations must understand the user privacy concerns of collecting smartphone sensor data and put preventative measures in place before they begin this process.

Advantages of sensor data collection

Smartphone sensor data provides organizations with a chance to learn about their employees' work patterns and behavior. IT could apply this data to the user authorization process to more accurately identify the users logging in to the device.

Organizations can also use sensor data to perform sentiment analysis to determine how satisfied employees are with their jobs. IT can set up this data collection to avoid tracking users individually and instead aggregate the data for AI analysis.

This data can help management understand group morale of their mobile users and what sort of events might cause stress. For example, sensor data could monitor employee engagement and attitudes after management introduces new technologies, modifies existing workflows or makes other organizational changes.

Organizations can use the data to streamline day-to-day operations as well. Organizations can analyze how employees move through their environments and interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, for example. The organization could then adjust its floor plans and workflows to optimize efficiency and productivity. This approach can also help organizations address accessibility issues for employees with disabilities.

Sensor data collection drawbacks

Despite these advantages that smartphone sensor data presents, sensor data use also comes with a number of serious concerns. At the top of the list are privacy concerns. The collection and analysis of this data create the potential for a malicious actor to misuse private or sensitive information. This potential only increases as organizations collect more data.

Employees who carry their phones with them outside of work could be at even greater risk if organizations collect sensor data even when they're off the clock.

The data may seem relatively innocuous, but anyone with access to it can track individuals, identify activities, determine medical conditions or discover such information as a smartphone's PIN. Organizations can even track and monitor users when their smartphone GPS is off.

If malicious actors, whether through cyberattacks or rogue employees, gain access to all this personal data, they could expose highly sensitive information. Such a breach would likely result in serious consequences for the employees and the organization.

The privacy concerns go beyond malicious actors who want to use the data for financial gain or blackmail; any employees who have access to sensor data might abuse it for personal reasons. With access to this data, employees can discover such information as who other employees talk to and their attitudes toward other workers.

With the help of machine learning and other AI technologies, the data could predict employee behavior, such as who is the most likely to call in sick or quit in the next year. Even if the AI algorithms are wrong, the targeted employees could still pay the price.

Employees who carry their phones with them outside of work could be at even greater risk if organizations collect sensor data even when they're off the clock. Anyone with access to the data could learn how employees spend their free time, where they go on weekends, whether they attend church, which political party they belong to or even their sleeping habits.

Needless to say, the collection of sensor data presents some major privacy threats for users in their work and personal lives. Organizations that collect, monitor and analyze smartphone sensor data must have ample safeguards in place to protect against both external and internal threats. This challenge will become increasingly difficult as sensor analytics becomes more sophisticated.

This was last published in July 2019

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