Wearable technology creates new privacy issues for employers

Impact of wearable technology ringing alarm bells among privacy advocates

Wearable technology is creating new privacy headaches for employers, a leading law firm has warned.

Technologies such as Google Glass and smart watches are gradually making their way into the workplace.

But the intrusive nature of these devices, which could be used by employees to take clandestine photographs or videos, are ringing alarm bells among some employers, says lawyer Sue McLean at Morrison and Foerster.  

“There are huge privacy and ethical implications around wearable technology,” she said in an interview with Computer Weekly.

She said wearable technology is likely to become more of a pressing issue for employers over the next few years as technologies, such as Google Glass, find new uses in the work place and home.

The market for wearable technology is set to grow from $1.6 billion to $5 billion, according to research by Gartner.

But as its use becomes more widespread, employers will need to put policies in place governing how staff use the technology.

For example, if a person wearing Google Glass videos a meeting with other employees, that could be construed as bullying, says McLean.

Similarly, an employee in a disciplinary action could use a wearable device to surreptitiously record the meeting – and then go on to use the recording in legal proceedings.

“Companies have to be very clear on how and why employees use wearable technology, make sure they are clear what the rules are, and that they have taken adequate precautions to comply with privacy regulations and the law,” she says.

Big brother

Research has shown, says McLean, that employees using wearable technology are more productive if they know they are being monitored.

Premium content on data protection

However, the technology raises potential privacy and data protection concerns that will need to be addressed by employers and trade unions.

For example, it may be legitimate to ask a fire fighter to wear Google Glass, showing a floor plan, to help them navigate through a burning building. But there may not be a good case for issuing Google Glass to shop assistants.

“It may depend what the job is, and whether employees can require wearable technology from a health and safety point of view, ” she says.

Intellectual Property

Companies may need to restrict or ban the use of wearable technology where employees have access to valuable intellectual property.

Organisations may choose to ban Google Glass from call centres, for example, where staff have access to customer records containing personal details about clients.

The technology could also raise new data protection issues, if companies use it to display sensitive data about their customers.

In January, Homeland Security agents removed a man wearing Google Glasses from the cinema

Virgin Atlantic, for example, has announced plans to issue staff at Heathrow airport Google Glass, to keep first class passengers up to data on flight information, weather and local events at their destination.

The devices, to be rolled out following a pilot earlier in the year, are able to alert staff to important passengers, by flashing their names, frequent flyer status and flight numbers on a mini-screen.

“Some of the information [in this type of application] could be classified as sensitive information. So if you are Jewish, and you chose Kosher food for your flight, that would show your religious affiliation,” she says.

Companies will need to make sure sensitive data is adequately secured, so it cannot accidently be leaked, she says, or be exposed to hacking risks.

Similarly, employees using Google Glass to make video recordings, will need to make sure that people in the video have consented to be filmed or recorded.


Experiences in the US have shown that so far, people have a tendency to over-react to new technology.

More on the internet of things

In January, Homeland Security agents removed a man from the cinema, and questioned him for several hours about potential copyright infringement, after he was spotted wearing Google Glass.

The man, who said he had only been wearing the Glass because it was fitted with his prescription lenses, was only able to prove his innocence when he persuaded officials to connect his Glass to a PC to examine its contents.

In another case a woman was accused of distracted driving when she was found to be wearing Google Glasses after being pulled over for speeding in the US. The charges were dropped because there was no evidence she had been distracted or had the device turned on.

Mobile phone cameras produced a similar reaction when they were first introduced, with many organisations responding by banning people with smart  phones, said McLean.

“That has gone away now because organisations realise you can’t ban all mobile phones, “ she says.

Read more on Smartphone technology