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Privacy Commissioner urges caution before installing GPS in company vehicles

Ottawa, November 30, 2006 – Employers need to carefully consider the privacy rights of their workers before installing Global Positioning Systems (GPS) into their vehicle fleets, according to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Jennifer Stoddart.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) today released a summary of its findings into a case involving the workplace use of GPS, which can track the location of a vehicle in real time. The Commissioner discussed her Office’s findings at a workplace privacy seminar hosted by Ryerson University.

“This is an important issue for employers and employees across Canada. We’re seeing more and more organizations installing GPS in their cars and trucks and it’s unclear whether they are adequately addressing privacy issues,” Ms. Stoddart said.

In the case investigated by the OPC, several workers complained that their employer, a telecommunications company, is using GPS to improperly collect their personal information – specifically their daily movements while on the job.

The company is using GPS in its installation and repair, and construction vehicles to locate, dispatch and route employees to job sites.  Some workers worried, however, that GPS is also being used to monitor work performance and that information gleaned from this technology will be used to justify disciplinary action.

The OPC investigation accepted most of the company’s arguments for using GPS.  It agreed, for example, that using GPS to dispatch vehicles is likely to lead to better service for the company’s customers and also could help locate missing vehicles.

However, the OPC expressed concern about using GPS as an employee surveillance tool.  While using GPS to track a vehicle is not overly privacy invasive, routinely evaluating worker performance based on assumptions drawn from GPS information impinges on individual privacy.

The use of GPS as an employee surveillance tool may be acceptable in certain situations, which are defined and communicated to employees beforehand, according to the OPC findings. However, a company should not routinely use GPS to monitor its workforce.

In this case, the OPC asked the company to clearly explain to its employees how GPS would be used to check up on them, and also to develop a policy outlining an appropriate process of warnings and progressive monitoring.  The policy subsequently prepared by the company spelled out situations in which the company will use GPS data to monitor employees.  These include an investigation into a complaint – about speeding, for example – from a member of the public; an investigation into concerns raised within the company; or to address productivity problems. The company also made a commitment to train its managers about the appropriate use of the technology.

“Systematically using GPS to check up on workers and try to determine how well they are doing their jobs would be going too far,” said Ms. Stoddart. “Employers do not have carte blanche to use GPS to constantly monitor their workforce.”

The OPC finding also cautions employers about “function creep” – collecting information for one purpose, and then using it for some other unrelated purpose in violation of basic fair information practices.

 “Managing workplace privacy is a balancing act. On the one hand, employers have the right to know what workers are up to on company time. On the other, employees have a right to privacy,” the Commissioner said.

“Workers do not check their privacy rights at the factory or office door.  Workplace privacy is an important part of the basic autonomy rights of individuals in our society,” she said. “Employers must find ways to weed out the bad employees without shattering the dignity and privacy rights of the good employees – who make up the vast majority of the workforce.”

The OPC is mandated by Parliament to act as an ombudsman, advocate and guardian of privacy rights in Canada.

The summary of the findings in the GPS investigation is available on the OPC Web site:

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For more information, please contact:

Valerie Lawton
Media Relations
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Tel: 613-943-5982
E-mail: vlawton@priv.gc.ca

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