In 2018, the news reported that some assembly line workers had been asked to wear caps that monitor brain waves in order for managers to adjust the pace of production and workflows. Some observers raised doubts on the reliability of these tools, and even cast doubts on their actual functioning, but it is undeniable that forms of mental surveillance are increasingly coming to our workplaces. “Sociometric badges”, wearable tools tracking emotions and stress by collecting data on heartbeats and the tone of voice, for instance, are spreading in the United States.
In 2018, the news reported that some assembly line workers had been asked to wear caps that monitor brain waves in order for managers to adjust the pace of production and workflows. Some observers raised doubts on the reliability of these tools, and even cast doubts on their actual functioning, […]
Most of these practices should be urgently restricted. Losing one’s mental privacy arguably threatens one of the core elements of being human. If this occurs at the workplace, where workers are already subject to quasi-dictatorial managerial prerogatives, the consequences could be disastrous. Yet, no significant attention has been devoted to how neurotechnologies, and other forms of mental surveillance, may impact on workplaces.
Besides brain waves monitoring and emotional tracking, facial scans are also widely used in recruitment, with artificial intelligence analyzing “how a person’s face moves” to detect ”how excited someone seems about a certain work task or how they would behave around angry customers”. Research projects exploring how to connect brains to technological devices are underway that could have detrimental consequences for workers.
The more these practices progress, the more labour scholars should raise concerns about them. Experimentations and implementation of these practices need data, and workplaces are perfect data mines. If regulation is not brought up-to-speed, the future world of work risks being one where employers require employees to use tools that collect data on their brain activity to engage in a unrestrained quest for productivity, to predict their behavior and even to monetize on their data by making them accessible to third parties.
Given the imbalance between employers and workers, there is limited possibility for workers to refuse such surveillance without risking to lose their jobs. This is why European countries have promoted governance of these practices through collective bargaining and workers’ representatives’ involvement. The EU General Data Protection Regulation provides that EU Member States may introduce, by law or by collective agreements, “specific rules to ensure the protection of the rights and freedoms in respect of the processing of employees’ personal data in the employment context”.
Much more heed, however, needs to be paid to “neuro-surveillance at work”. Neuroscientist Marcello Ienca, for instance, called for the recognition of new human rights to face the rise of neurotechnology, including rights to mental privacy and integrity. xxx