Well before COVID-19 rooted us firmly into the digital world, people had embraced digital connectivity. Wearables like Apple Watch, FitBit, Oura rings, and more are so popular that nearly one out of every five Americans is wearing them. People have become increasingly more comfortable sharing sensitive information to gain insights about themselves.

Most of us realize that corporations use the information they gather from wearable devices to learn more about consumer behavior. But few are aware that the same data are also being used to understand the habits, productivity, alertness, and fatigue of workplace employees.

Tesco was one of the first corporations to embrace wearable devices for its employees. In 2013, it started to require its employees in grocery warehousing facilities in Ireland and the U.K. to wear armbands to track their productivity. The armbands allowed Tesco to detect when an employee picked up inventory from one place and moved it to another. Tesco used the armbands to track everything from employee movements throughout the warehouse, to when an employee took an unscheduled break. And then made choices about employee advancement based on the insights they learned.

There was an uproar by the employees. They felt like Big Brother was watching them. And they really didn’t like it, even though in many ways it did make their jobs easier.

Perhaps you’re thinking—well, too bad! Employees shouldn’t take unscheduled breaks! Or they should quit and work somewhere else! But most of these workers didn’t have the luxury of upward mobility. And it didn’t take long before the same practices were adopted by other corporations worldwide.

In 2018, Amazon was awarded a patent for a wristband to track warehouse employees in its distribution centers worldwide. And in December 2020, Amazon made its corporate surveillance tools, including its hardware and software development kits, available to corporations worldwide. 

It isn’t just armbands that employers are using, and it isn’t just factory workers who are being tracked. As the COVID-19 pandemic sent employees home and into remote settings, employers have fully embraced surveillance of even their white-collar workers while at home. In a recent survey, 2,000 employers and 2,000 employees who work in a remote or hybrid capacity were asked to reveal the extent of employer surveillance. Despite most employers having ethical concerns about monitoring their employees, 78 percent admitted to using monitoring technology to track employees’ emails, calls, messages, videos, websites visited, screens, or even to take periodic screen captures of their employees.

And now? Employers are shifting from just tracking movements to tracking minds.

In a recent talk to corporate executives at the Fortune Global Tech Forum, Emotiv president Oliver Oullier extolled the company’s new enterprise- based neurotechnology solution, the MN8, for improving workplace productivity. While the MN8 looks like standard ear pods (and can in fact be used to listen to music or participate in a conference call), the device has embedded electroencepholography (EEG) sensors, which allow employers to also track employee’s brainwaves for stress and attention levels while they are working. As Oullier explains, they believe brainwave monitoring is critical to employers because “we’re not equal when it comes to focusing. Some people can focus very, very deeply for forty-five minutes. Others for two hours.”

SAP SE, a German multinational software corporation based in Walldorf, Baden-Württemberg, has teamed up with Emotiv to help employers track their employees’ brains. They have created a system called Focus UX that reads real-time human cognitive states and shares personalized feedback with employees, and their managers tracking them, on their cognitive performance (load, stress, attention levels) while at work.

Other companies offer similar technology, such as Lockheed’s real-time cognitive workload assessment, called CogC2 (Cognitive Command and Control), which provides companies with real-time neurophysiological workload assessments that can enable a company to “optimize loading distribution across a team of employees,” and “understand the performance cycles of individuals and teams,” or improve workplace safety by “identifying signatures indicative of fatigue or inattention before an incident occurs,” by monitoring “employee physiological status and well-being,” all to “optimize their workforce for increased productivity and improved employee satisfaction.

This isn’t science fiction, and brain monitoring is already happening in workplaces worldwide.

Over the last decade, SmartCap Technologies Pty. Ltd., based in Brisbane, Australia, has manufactured and sold an enterprise brain-sensing device to enable real-time fatigue-monitoring of workers. SmartCap’s technology assesses real-time fatigue levels by monitoring the brainwaves of its users for oncoming microsleeps that create safety hazards. More than 5,000 companies worldwide have adopted their technology, ranging from mining to construction, trucking, aviation, trains, and other industries. And in China, thousands of workers in government-run corporations are regularly having their brains monitored while at work. On production lines, at the helm of high-speed trains, in the military, and more, EEG sensors have been embedded into these employees’ headwear to track their brain activity throughout their workday.

Today, employees have very few rights to limit employers’ use of surveillance technology. And that just may mean that even our brains can be watched. Many people have all but given up on personal privacy. But it matters that mental privacy still stands. Not because it is the last form of privacy that will also inevitably fall, but because it is the one that must never be allowed to do so.

Farahany, Robinson O. Everett Professor of law and professor of philosophy, is the founding director of Duke Science & Society. Appointed by President Obama, she served on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues from 2010 to 2017. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Battle for Your Brain: Big Brother and Big Tech Want to Know What You’re Thinking (St. Martin’s Press).

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