The rise of GPS tracking apps to monitor employee safety – walking the line between safety and privacy

Whether we use it to navigate to meetings or to check-in at our favourite restaurant, GPS has become a big part of our everyday lives. 10 years ago carrying around a GPS receiver in your pocket would be unimaginable, however today many of us use GPS daily via our smartphones.

But it’s one thing choosing to share your location with your social network, or finding directions on a map – but what about sharing your exact off-site location with your employer?

There are an estimated 6 million lone workers in the UK and more and more employers are using GPS tracking apps to monitor their safety, from sales people driving between appointments to engineers working on a remote sites. Lone worker safety apps, which display employee locations on a map and allow staff to discreetly signal for help if needed, are increasing in popularity due to the prolific use of smartphones and tablets – I know that I never go anywhere without my smartphone and employers realise that many of their employees are the same.

Whilst this rise is undoubtedly a positive move for employee safeguarding, using GPS powered apps to monitor employees understandably raises important questions around privacy.

Big Brother is watching?

There is no doubt that there could be a privacy issue when it comes to mobile phone tracking. While most apps will ask permission to access your location through GPS, what many users don’t know is that sometimes your location is continuously being tracked by your device regardless of whether this information is being shared with other users. All it takes is forgetting to untick a box or agreeing to a long list of unread notifications when downloading an app.

In late 2014 there was a flurry of news stories surrounding the location settings on iPhones, which were described as ‘a divorce lawyers dream’. Buried within the privacy settings is a ‘Frequent Locations’ tab which records where you have been, including dates and times. This is switched on unless you turn it off manually – I tried it and sure enough my every move was documented and it was very disconcerting. (To check this on your own iPhone go to Settings, and select the Privacy tab. Then, click Location Services at the top, which will probably say ‘on’. From here, scroll down and click System Services. Finally, select Frequent Locations, which is the last option. At the bottom, you’ll see your history, including the locations and how many visits made).

Apple insist they only use the data to improve their map functionality and the data doesn’t leave the phone – however it does highlight how important it is to be transparent in your use of location tracking, and how uncomfortable not doing so can make people feel. This is especially important in the workplace where the technology is provided by you, not chosen by the employee.

Consent and transparency

Using GPS tracking in order to monitor employee safety is a positive move on the employers part, usually done out of a desire to meet your duty of care to employees and adhere to health and safety legislation.  However, from an employee’s point of view, they may find the introduction of an app that shares their location with their employer intrusive and be concerned about any ulterior motives for the tracking.

Therefore if you decide to use a lone worker safety app it is crucial to follow these three golden rules to ensure a smooth and positive roll out;

  • Consent – The employee should always be in control of when they are monitored. Choose an app that only tracks and reports on employee location when it is activated by the employee and stops as soon as an employee choses – therefore the employee consents to being monitored each time. This is usually done by the use of pins and passwords to turn an app on and off by the employee and no one else.
  • Transparency – Clearly and regularly communicate to all staff why you use the app to make it clear it is a safety device not a means to monitor productivity or ‘spy’ on employees. Share the positives of being monitored; peace of mind when working alone that they can signal for help anytime and they will be found quickly.
  • Privacy – all location data collected from use of the app should be kept securely by the employer in line with current Data Protection, Human Rights and Employment Legislation.

(This article originally appeared in Risk UK Blog, written by Helen Down, StaySafe and is republished here with permission)

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