Productivity vs. Privacy: Tracking Workers On (and Off) the Job

In February of 2018, Amazon was awarded two patents for a new wristband device that could track the locations and hand movements of warehouse workers in real time. The wristband was described as part of a “haptic feedback” system that would sense the location of a worker’s wrist in relation to some external equipment — a particular inventory bin, for instance– and then buzz if the worker appeared to be loading the wrong item. While according to the patent the device was designed to boost productivity by helping workers to package items more efficiently, critics pointed out that the wearable could add yet another level of surveillance to the heavily-monitored factory environment. 

While it is unclear whether Amazon went through with manufacturing the wearable device, these were not the first allegations of the company using location tracking to monitor the productivity of its workers. In 2016, a BBC investigation into a trucking company contracted by Amazon Logistics reported impossible-to-meet efficiency targets, such as requiring drivers to deliver up to 200 packages per day with only three minutes allocated to each drop-off. These standards were reportedly enforced using a GPS navigation system that tracked drivers as they completed their routes. 

Amazon is not alone in this practice. As The Atlantic reported in 2017, employers routinely track their workers’ locations, often for legitimate reasons such as to “make sure their workers are clocking in and out on time” and to ensure that remote workers “are reporting mileage correctly, and that they aren’t taking detours between jobs to pick up groceries.”

There are, however, two negative implications of such practices for the wellbeing of workers. The first risk occurs when location data is used to enforce productivity standards that exceed what can reasonably be expected. While termination is an obvious risk, of even greater concern is when workers feel the need to engage in hazardous activities out of fear of termination. Truck drivers, for instance, have reported speeding, running through stop signs, and skipping breaks in order to meet productivity requirements. The second concern is that the collection of location data presents an inherent risk to workers’ privacy, particularly when location tracking uses company equipment or software continues that follows workers after work hours. In 2015, a California woman filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired by her financial technology employer after uninstalling an app on her company-issued iPhone that reportedly tracked her location 24 hours per day.

On the flip side, location tracking has also been used to help workers monitor their own productivity to combat illegal practices like wage theft. The Australian Fair Work Ombudsman, for instance, has created a mobile application called “Record My Hours” that uses the location of a worker’s phone to automatically log their hours spent on the worksite. This provides workers with a credible record that could benefit them, for instance, in a wage dispute with their employer over hours worked. Crucially, workers who choose to install the app have total control over when this data is collected and how it is shared, which addresses the privacy concerns that might otherwise be present. 

In one sense, this practice benefits from a regulatory blindspot. In the United States, few regulations at the state or federal level protect workers from GPS tracking by employers. In light of this gap, companies should champion location monitoring systems that collect only the information that is needed to fairly evaluate their employees’ work, and that trust workers to decide when this data is collected– and perhaps more importantly, when it’s not. 

Dane Gambrell is a Research Assistant at The GovLab at New York University, where he coordinates the organization’s research on Innovations in Labour Law Enforcement. He has previously written about geographical topics on the American Geographical Society’s blog site, UBIQUE.