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Abstract

From the Pinkerton private detectives of the 1850s, to the closed-circuit cameras and email monitoring of the 1990s, to new apps that quantify the productivity of workers, and to the collection of health data as part of workplace wellness programs, American employers have increasingly sought to track the activities of their employees. Starting with Taylorism and Fordism, American workers have become accustomed to heightened levels of monitoring that have only been mitigated by the legal counterweight of organized unions and labor laws. Thus, along with economic and technological limits, the law has always been presumed as a constraint on these surveillance activities. Recently, technological advancements in several fields—big data analytics, communications capture, mobile device design, DNA testing, and biometrics—have dramatically expanded capacities for worker surveillance both on and off the job. While the cost of many forms of surveillance has dropped significantly, new technologies make the surveillance of workers even more convenient and accessible, and labor unions have become much less powerful in advocating for workers. The American worker must now contend with an all-seeing Argus Panoptes built from technology that allows for the trawling of employee data from the Internet and the employer collection of productivity data and health data, with the ostensible consent of the worker. This raises the question of whether the law still remains a a meaningful avenue to delineate boundaries for worker surveillance.

In this Article, we start from the normative viewpoint that the right to privacy is not an economic good that may be exchanged for the opportunity for employment. We then examine the effectiveness of the law as a check on intrusive worker surveillance, given recent technological innovations. In particular, we focus on two popular trends in worker tracking—productivity apps and worker wellness programs—to argue that current legal constraints are insufficient and may leave American workers at the mercy of 24/7 employer monitoring. We consider three possible approaches to remedying this deficiency of the law: (1) a comprehensive omnibus federal information privacy law, similar to approaches taken in the European Union, which would protect all individual privacy to various degrees regardless of whether or not one is at work or elsewhere and without regard to the sensitivity of the data at issue; (2) a narrower, sector-specific Employee Privacy Protection Act (EPPA), which would focus on prohibiting specific workplace surveillance practices that extend outside of work-related locations or activities; and (3) an even narrower sector and sensitivity-specific Employee Health Information Privacy Act (EHIPA), which would protect the most sensitive type of employee data, especially those that could arguably fall outside of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPAA) jurisdiction, such as wellness and other data related to health and one’s personhood.

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Link to publisher version (DOI)

10.15779/Z38BR8MF94