Bar Codes for Workers?

Active badges help companies keep close track of their employees. Unlike passive ID badges that employees use to enter a room -- but, usually, not ...
John P. Mello Jr.June 15, 2001

These days, the worker who claims that the boss follows his every move might not be exaggerating. Unlike a passive ID badge that employees use to gain entrance into a room — but, usually, not to leave it — active badges continuously transmit signals that are read by computer-based mapping programs.

Similar technology has been used to track cargo, equipment, and merchandise. But in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on the US, keeping tabs on humans — read employees — will likely become job one for employers. Even before the attacks, some companies were already using active badges to track workers within a building or business campus, on a second-by-second basis. A prime example: a number of hospitals rely on active badges to keep tabs on doctors and nurses who may need to be quickly summoned to duty. Companies marketing active-badge systems include Versus Technology and TRL Systems.

Besides the security benefits, the technology can also help companies discover which workers are spending too much time at the water cooler. Says Pete Steggles, an active-badge researcher at AT&T Laboratories in Cambridge, England: “Employers have a basic interest in having people do productive work; it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re spying on people.”

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Others aren’t so sure. Paul Schwartz, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, worries that employers may sift through active-badge monitoring records when trying to fire a worker. “I find it troublesome to have employers stockpile information and then decide later how it will be used,” he says.

Workers may have little say in the matter. As with office E-mail and phone calls, monitoring the active badges of employees is not illegal.