Are Biometric Time Clocks Legal? – Discovery News

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Are Biometric Time Clocks Legal?

October 29, 2010 7:16:19

Cristen Conger

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Employee timecards are gradually disappearing from the workplace, along with factory whistles and other relics of a bygone labor era.

Many hospitals, schools and businesses are converting from punch cards for non-salaried workers to biometric time clocks that eliminate paper trails and prevent employees from goosing their hours.

Biometric time clocks refer to computer-based systems that first capture some form of biometric data, such as iris scans, finger images and facial images. The computer system then extracts unique data points (i.e. fingerprint whirls and ridges) and formulates a biometric template used to verify and employee’s identity.

In other words, it’s similar to flashing photo IDs, except instead of visually matching an employee’s face with the picture on his or her card, a scanner digitally matches, say, an employee’s hand to his or her stored biometric data.

Not all employees are thrilled with having their private biometric data stored, though, and some have even questioned its legality.

Although federal law doesn’t prohibit workplaces from implementing biometric time and attendance systems, some states have taken legal action in order to protect employees’ privacy rights.

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Texas, Illinois and Washington have passed legislation restricting biometric data storage and mandating user consent prior to collecting it. The European Union also has outlined legal protections against potential privacy issues involved with collecting, storing and disseminating biometric data.

“(Time and attendance) data can be utilized potentially by the employer for keeping track of protected legal activities or private matters involving employees,” said William A. Herbert, deputy chair of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (NY PERB) and an expert electronic workplace privacy issues. “In addition, this data may also become the subject of subpoena and discovery by investigatory agencies and during litigation.”

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Streamlining employee time and attendance information with biometric time clocks can certainly benefit employers – optimistic returns on investment can be achieved in months — but businesses also run the risk of inadvertently hanging on to private information that could be illegal.

In Herbert’s opinion, not on behalf of NY PERB, these kind of biometric-related scenarios could be solved preemptively with greater collaboration between software developers and workplace interest groups, similar to how the European Union approached the matter years ago.

“The question is how to modify the technological architecture so that the tools can be utilized for only a limited and clearly defined employer purpose, which may help lower individual concerns about the privacy issues,” Herbert said.

But Brian Kesselman, chief information officer of PerfectSoftware that develops biometric time and attendance systems, argues that the privacy concerns may be overblown, considering the amount of data gathered.

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In reference to fingerprint biometric time clocks, he said the systems don’t store fingerprint images but rather measurements of how the fingerprint passes over the scanner, which is the basis for the employee’s unique biometric “clock in” code.

“Once an employee understands that only a small amount of comparative data is stored and it’s stored securely, that often eliminates their fears,” Kesselman said.

But what about working from home? Interestingly, the rise of telecommuting has added a new wrinkle in the biometric time clock debate.

PerfectSoftware and other biometric companies have come out with GPS software for smart phones, IP address verification and biometric peripherals that can track workers even when they aren’t sitting in their cubicles.

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