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An eye on personal data

Surveillance Studies Centre receives grant to study wearables and privacy in the workplace.

As wearable technology adoption continues to grow, particularly in the workforce, concerns are being raised about who has access to the data collected and how it might be used.

Researchers at the Surveillance Studies Centre (SSC) at Queen’s University, led by Dr. David Lyon and Dr. David Murakami Wood, have been awarded a 2016-2017 Contributions grant from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) to study privacy implications of wearable technology in Canadian workplaces.

Over the coming months SSC researchers will be examining the emerging applications of wearables in Canadian workplaces, particularly in the mining, oil and gas, and warehousing and transportation industries. Typically introduced for improving productivity and health and safety, wearables help support efforts to better understand day-to-day operations.

“In these sectors, increasingly we are seeing the introduction of devices to measure heat stress, fatigue, and the ergonomic performance of employees, but these same measurements can also lead to accidental disclosures of private information” says Steven Richardson a co-investigator and PhD candidate at the Surveillance Studies Centre. “For example, a wearable device that is capable of tracking heart rate, respiration and movement can also be used to infer if the employee is smoking, using illicit drugs or alcohol, and other personal or private information.”

While making such inferences may be useful, a balance must be struck between what the data is produced for and what it ends up being used for in order for workers to be informed when they consent to being monitored. In the Canadian regulatory landscape, ‘informed consent’ is a crucial pillar of laws that protect individual privacy. Yet ‘informed consent’ is known to be notoriously difficult to achieve in practice: many of us still do not fully understand what it is we are agreeing to when we rush through ‘terms and conditions,’ ‘privacy policies’ and other agreements we are urged to review before using a new device or service.

“This project is about getting the conversation around the privacy implications of these technologies started,” continues Mr. Richardson. “Canada is at the forefront of innovation in wearable technology, and we want to see this become a competitive advantage for Canadian industry. We want to see Canada come out ahead on the privacy and ethical issues, to start being proactive about it, so Canadians can start feeling more comfortable with these things that are producing really accurate portraits of themselves.”

The project itself will provide the OPC with an inventory of wearable devices currently or potentially entering Canadian workplaces. The research team also plans to incorporate the perspective of industry stakeholders, privacy commissioners, and union stewards in order to provide recommendations and best practices for potential regulatory amendments.

“Lawmakers are always in a position to have to catch up with technology,” says Debra Mackinnon, a co-investigator and PhD candidate at the Surveillance Studies Centre. “It’s one thing to know how secure these devices are in general, but it’s of greater consequence and concern when the data collected by these devices can suggest other things about the user than the purpose for which it was intended.”