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RFID Technology Conjures 'Big Brother' Fears over Privacy

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A recent article published on Rigzone on the implementation of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in platform operations offshore Mexico stirred controversy among readers concerning their privacy in the workplace.

RFID has been used in a number of industries to track inventory, including the retail industry, livestock, and transportation industries; the oil and gas industry has implemented RFID in recent years not only to track inventory, but to address the issues of safety and non-productive time. This technology also is being used in drilling technology to allow producers to remote automate drilling operations.

While RFID can offer a number of benefits, the use of RFID technology also has raised issues surrounding worker privacy, including what worker data is tracked, how that data is used and whether workers can be tracked in the off-hours.

The ability to track a person's every move has conjured fear among some that the use of RFID technology will create a world similar to George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. One example of these fears is the public boycott in 2003 over fears of privacy invasion prompted clothing manufacturer Benetton to abandon plans to place RFID tags into the clothing it sells.

Around this time, Wal-Mart and some other companies also had proposed implementing RFID systems to allow better tracking of inventory. The fear was the RFID tags in clothing and other items, if they remained active once a person left a store, could then track where that person was at all times.

RFID has been implemented for tracking and monitoring assets, but also has been used for tracking employees at work, including monitoring bathroom breaks and whether employees are staying in a secure room too long.

"My view is that RFID was developed for keeping track of inventory and raw materials and is not intended for identifying individuals, is not reliable enough for that purpose, and ought not to be used for that purpose," said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of The Privacy Journal, a Providence, R.I.-based publication that covers issues related to personal privacy.

One issue is that information stored on RFID could be accessed and used without a worker's consent. Another possible risk is that information could get mixed up with another employee, Smith noted.

Risk of unauthorized scanning and reading of RFID badges is another concern, since current technology allowed RFID tags to be read from a greater distance, which could allow data to be intercepted by unauthorized outside parties. Another concern among workers is being tracked when they're not working.

At present, there are few laws protecting the privacy of employees, noted Smith. A dozen or so states permit an employee to inspect their personal data on file, which would presumably include information generated by RFID technology.

"Just being known as a bar code is demeaning in the workplace," Smith noted.

Implementation, Not Technology Itself, Raises Privacy Concerns

RFID technology in and of itself does not pose a threat to privacy – it's when the technology is deployed in a way not consistent with responsible privacy information security practices that RFID becomes a problem, said Aaron Messing, associate with Union, N.J.-based OlenderFeldman LLP. Messing handles privacy issues for clients that include manufacturing and e-commerce firms.

Legal issues can arise if a company is tracking its employees secretly, Messing noted, or if it places a tracking device on an employees' property without permission.

He recommends that clients should follow basic principles of good business practices, including making employees aware they are being monitored and getting written consent.

"Openness and transparency over how data is tracked and what is being used is the best policy, as employees are typically concerned about how information on them is being used," Messing commented. "We advise clients to limit their tracking of employees to working hours, or when that's not feasible, they should only access the information they want to track, such as working hours."

The clients Messing works with that use RFID typically use the technology for tracking inventory, not workers. Messing can see where RFID would have legitimate uses on an oil rig. In the case of oil rigs, RFID tracking can be a good thing in case of emergency, as RFID makes it possible to determine whether all employees have been evacuated or how evacuation plans should be formed, Messing commented.

"It really depends on what the information is being used for," Messing commented. However, employers that don't have legitimate reasons for tracking workers can result in loss of morale among workers or loss of workers to other companies.

Workers who have RFID lanyards or tags can leave their tags at home once the work day is over to avoid be tracked off-hours. However, employees generally don't have a lot of rights in terms of privacy while on the job.

"Since an employee is being paid to work, the expectation is that employers have a right to track employees' activities," said Messing.

This activity can include monitoring phone conversations, computer activity, movements throughout a building and bathroom breaks.

However, companies should try to design monitoring programs that are respectful of employees.

"Companies that do things such as block personal email or certain websites and place a lot of restrictions on workers may do more harm than good, since workers don't like feeling like they're not trusted or working in a nanny state," Messing commented.

A decent amount of state and federal laws exist governing the use of RFID to monitor individuals, Messing noted, including laws barring the use of RFID in driver's licenses or tracking students with RFID.

A few states have passed rules prohibiting employers to require employees to allow RFID tags to be implanted in their bodies. Some talk of requiring RFID implants for workers in sensitive industries such as defense has occurred, but this application of RFID is rare.



Karen Boman has more than 10 years of experience covering the upstream oil and gas sector. Email Karen at kboman@rigzone.com.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Post a Comment Generated by readers, the comments included herein do not reflect the views and opinions of Rigzone. All comments are subject to editorial review. Off-topic, inappropriate or insulting comments will be removed.
Zack Barron | Feb. 10, 2012
The technical limitations of RFID needs more explanation. Most employee badging applications use proximity cards that simply can't be read at the distances required for that type of always-on tracking. Most of these solutions rely on checkpoint scanning — employees have to scan their badges as they enter and leave certain areas. Beyond that, their movements can't be detected. The ability to read tags at a distance depends on the technology used. Most identification systems use tags that have a read range of only a few inches — in these applications, the badges have to be waved fairly close to the reader (usually to access a secure door). The reason: in security applications, you don't want door locks to be accidentally activated when someone simply passes too close to the reader. RFID has proven effective in managing assets, inventory, maintenance and audits in the oil and gas industry; overblown fears of “Big Brother”-style monitoring should not derail industry efforts to improve their operations using the technology.



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