q Graeme Smith, Is Big McBrother invading workplace privacy?

Is Big McBrother invading workplace privacy?

By Graeme Smith, The Globe and Mail, Tuesday 13 January 2004, Page A8

WINNIPEG—To a regular customer, the McDonald's restaurants in Winnipeg give no hint that they're testing controversial new devices for monitoring employees.

But behind the grease pits and the clanging steel kitchenware, one of Canada's largest fast-food chains is trying out technology that is rapidly changing workplaces across the country and raising concerns about employee privacy.

Biometric devices—machines that identify fingerprints, hands, eyes or faces—were once used mainly for security at places like nuclear plants. But the devices are getting cheaper and catching the interest of business owners from small fish-processing plants to multinational burger chains.

Hundreds of McDonald's workers in Winnipeg now begin each shift by placing their hand on a scanner that confirms their identity and records the exact moment when they arrived at work. They finish each day with another scan.

The company began the pilot project a year ago with two restaurants, and has since expanded it to 22 locations. Two types of scanners are being tested: one that examines handprints, and another that looks only at thumbprints.

It's too early to know whether the scanners will replace time clocks in all 1,300 McDonald's restaurants in Canada, spokesman Ron Christianson said. The idea is to eliminate paperwork by connecting the scanners directly to the payroll department, he said, but declined to give details about the system.

We don't normally talk about our tests, so there's not any information we can provide about how it's working, Mr. Christianson said. We work in a very competitive environment, and this is just a way to make things more efficient.

Jorn Nordmann, president of S.M. Products, was more blunt about why he installed a hand scanner at his fish-processing plant in Delta, B.C. If you want to control a whole bunch of people, it's the only way to go, he said.

His 50 employees would often buddy-punch, meaning that they would punch the time clock for people who had not shown up. They're typical workers, Mr. Nordmann said. It's not nice work. You have a lot of turnover. You have them one week, and the next week they're gone. You can't tell the faces any more.

Devices that identify faces, or almost any other body part, are becoming increasingly cheap and accessible. The latest models from the same manufacturer now sell for about $2,500 to $5,000 each.

The most common biometric terminals look like miniature bank machines, about the size of a breadbox. As a first step, an employee must usually type in a personal identification number or swipe a pass card. That calls up an encoded image of their hand, which the machine uses for comparison with the employee's handprint. They can replace door locks and time clocks, and track an employee's habits.

John Edwards, a dealer at Amano Cincinnati, a time-systems manufacturer based in Mississauga, Ont., said sales of biometric systems surpassed those of pass-card time clocks this year. It's outselling my swipe-card terminals 10 to one.

The growing popularity of such systems is expected to put pressure on what experts describe as a weak spot in Canada's privacy law.

A new federal law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, took effect on Jan. 1. Experts say it protects consumers against abuse of their personal information, but offers few safeguards for employees.

It's a really interesting case with McDonald's, because this is an area where there's a gap, said Colin Bennett, a politics professor at the University of Victoria who has researched privacy law for two decades. The employees would have little recourse if their information was misused.

Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have laws that would protect employees, Mr. Bennett said, but other provinces have not enacted adequate regulations.

Most privacy experts say they don't have serious concerns about the type of system that McDonald's is testing, if the handprints or thumbprints are used only for clocking employees' hours.

McDonald's says it will not use the information for anything else: We take our responsibility to manage and safeguard personal employee information very seriously, Mr. Christianson said.

But the problem is that the law does not prevent the information from being used for other purposes within the company, said David Jones, president of privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Canada.

There may be a false sense of security with the new privacy legislation, Mr. Jones said. I don't think McDonald's is trying to be Big Brother. . . . But what if they decided to check those fingerprints to see if employees have a criminal record? . . . It raises an issue worth discussing.