IoT privacy in question as UK newspaper gets caught tracking staff

IoT privacy in question as UK newspaper gets caught tracking staff

The Telegraph has since removed the monitoring devices

The continuing debate over Internet of Things (IoT) and privacy looks set to continue, especially with recent news revealing that British newspaper The Telegraph had been using sensors to secretly track when staff were at their desk.

Earlier this week, BuzzFeed broke the news that The Telegraph had secretly installed wireless motion detector boxes under the desks of their journalists.

These boxes, which were supplied by Lancashire-based company OccupEye, used sensors which “are triggered by both motion and heat” to see if staff are at their desk. The firm’s website says it provides “automated workspace utilisation analysis” and adds that staff managers get access to a system which is “ultra-sensitive, yet ultra-reliable when it comes to tracking real-time 1:1 space utilisation”.

“Quite simply, if a space is used, your OccupEye sensors will record it and you are guaranteed to know about it,” the website reads.

The Telegraph, as you might expect, has since faced a strong backlash on the roll-out, with strong opposition from both trade unions and privacy groups. The newspaper initially declined to comment on the original story, although it did contact staff shortly after being approached by BuzzFeed to say that the sensors were solely deployed for environmental reasons.

In the memo, newspaper bosses said that the sensors were designed to “make our floors in the building as energy efficient as possible” whilst also reducing “the amount of power we consume for heating, lighting and cooling the building at times of low usage”. The data would be used to monitor broad areas within the office for energy usage.

Despite this memo, OccupEye’s own website made little mention of these sensors’ environmental benefits (instead focusing on space utilisation), until it released a statement on the article.

The Telegraph removed all devices four hours after installation, and says that it is now looking at “alternative ways to gather the environmental sustainability data we need.”

Speaking shortly after the news broke, Big Brother Watch CEO Renate Samson told Internet of Business that this points to an increasing trend of employers monitoring staff.

“Monitoring staff – whether it be toilet breaks, lunch breaks, time on the phone or exercise levels – is becoming a trend in many areas of business.

occupeye“It appears that The Telegraph failed to discuss with staff before installing the motion detector sensors to their desks, leading to anxiety and an environment of mistrust.

“Companies who wish to monitor their staff, using motion detectors, CCTV or wearables should discuss with staff well in advance, explaining the reason for the surveillance and  address any concerns before proceeding with the technology.”

Security journalist Dan Raywood, acting editor at InfoSecurity and former analyst at 451 Research, added to the chorus of disapproval.

“We know as  employees that our emails and web  activity are monitored by our employers,  but this seems  to be step backwards,” he told IoB. “In these times of remote working, it seems surprising that employees would appear to be so untrusted. Also the placement of the devices on desks is very much an ‘in your face’ way of monitoring behaviour, and so I’m not surprised that union representatives were called for advice.”

The news highlights how ethics and privacy could become significant barriers for those enterprises and SMEs looking to deploy Internet of Things technologies.

Companies from all verticals are starting to realise how the IoT can be used to become more efficient, generate new revenue streams and gain visibility over business operations and customers – but there are already suggestions that IoT devices, including wearables, could result in ‘little brother’ surveillance in the workplace.

In this FT article, numerous commentators talked of the challenges of monitoring staff data, and the ‘moral dilemmas’ of perusing such personal information, while data science consultancy Profusion’s Mike Weston admitted that its employees found its wearables experiment “quite disturbing” when trialled last year.

And with a new UK government-funded research hub recently vowing to investigate IoT ‘privacy’ and ‘ethics’ for the next three years, you can be sure that this will be a conservation that will run and run.