Biometric Scanning: Intrusion or Good Financial Sense?


Everyone expects some level of oversight in the workplace. It can’t be helped. Unless you are an independent contractor and can make your own hours and do the job your way, your time on the job is monitored by your employer to a greater or lesser degree. In some professional settings, hours are flexible and no one watches the door as long as the work is done. In other places, the time clock is king and each employee pays homage to it twice—or more—per day. It’s been this way for decades and no one really thinks twice about it.

Today, however, there is something new on the employment landscape: Biometric Scanning, and it is becoming big business with over $2.1 billion in sales worldwide for 2006 alone. The locations of these scanners, which identify people by physical characteristics such as thumb prints, hand geometry, retinal vein patterns and iris patterns to name a few, include small businesses like Dunkin Donuts and other retailers, medical facilities, hotels, military bases and government agencies. According to Michael Kelly, a spokesman for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the system isn't meant to be intrusive and has clear benefits over old- style punch clocks or paper time sheets.

For example, the city expects to save $60 million per year by using this technology. They currently use a complex system that requires one full-time timekeeper for every 100 to 250 employees. They expect the new system, called “CityTime,” to eliminate much of the paper-pushing done by thousands of city employees. They also look forward to the system’s ability to curtail fraud by eliminating the ability of city employees to falsify their timecards.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? No more punch cards, or time clocks; no more fraud or having to have your ID card read to go from one part of the building to another. That is one less thing to forget on your bureau as you are getting ready for work. Now we’re putting in systems straight out of Star Trek: Just look at a red light, the computer identifies you and you are in.

What’s not to like?

Apparently, depending on who you ask, there is quite a bit not to like. In fact, for some it is downright Orwellian.

The place to start would be the draftsmen, planners and architects in New York City's Parks Department, which began using the scanners last year, where it is seen as a bureaucratic intrusion into a creative professional culture where time was considered a flexible issue. More than that, the scanners are seen as demeaning, coming from a system based on mistrust.

The folks in the Park’s Department are not alone. At a New York City Council meeting in 2007 discussing the system, Claude Fort, president of the Civil Service Technical Guild, Local 375 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said: “The combination of a factory-floor mentality and installation of the degrading hand-scanner ‘time clocks’ has devastated morale and discouraged city employees from putting in any more than the minimal hours and effort required. Not only has there been phenomenal waste and inefficiency resulting from poorly designed software, but the new system has actually cheated city employees out of pay and accrued time.”

Another witness, Cecelia McCarthy, with the Organization of Staff Analysts, another union representing City employees, described how a worker was told to remove a bandage and place their injured hand, open finger wound and all, on the scanner.

How sanitary. Was this worker also given a moist, antibacterial towelette to wipe the scanner before they put their open wound on it?

The question is whether these units are part of an effort to control costs or whether they are being put into place to add to the control already exercised by managers and employers? Ask the unions, it is all about control. They say that no matter what the system is to be used for today, eventually they could be used to harass honest employees or even to invade their privacy. According to Fort, "The bottom line is that these palm scanners are designed to exercise more control over the workforce. They aren't there for security purposes. It has nothing to do with productivity. It is about control, and that is what makes us nervous."

Is it all about control? Does it raise privacy or civil liberties issues for you. That is what I would like you to answer in the comments section below. If you are an employee, tell us why you are for or against biometric scanning. If you are a company owner and you use a system like this, or you decided against it, we’d love to know why.