Hands-free work: Google Glass and other wearable computers need their own enterprise-grade privacy policiesHands-free work: Google Glass and other wearable computers need their own enterprise-grade privacy policies

It’s only a matter of time before wearable computing devices make their way into Australian workplaces, but are we ready for the privacy hurdles?

For the most part, the rise of wearables, as they are known, has been heavily linked to the consumer market or Google Glass and smartwatches.

But the wearables movement is far bigger than the new services and data collection efforts of Google or those in the nascent smartwatch market.

From rings that turn your hand into a virtual keyboard or touchpad, to ear buds that monitor your heart, to NFC-enabled gloves paired with augmented reality, to smart employee badgesthat capture voice and location information, and to glasses that help you with your posture to name but a few, the number and type of wearables is rapidly growing.

And so too are the opportunities for organisations to improve or disrupt traditional practices at work. Now, companies are being urged to develop their own enterprise-grade privacy policies to ensure employees are at ease working with and around wearable computers.

Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is encouraging companies to develop policies that address its use in the workplace including whether the technology collects personal information.

“If it does collect personal information, the policy could also outline how that information is used, disclosed and stored,” he told IT Pro.

Although information collected on employees is exempt from the Privacy Act, Norton Rose Fulbright Australia Partner Sarah Ralph noted that NSW, the ACT, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have legislation regulating the use of geographic surveillance systems or tracking devices in the workplace – including wearables.

“New South Wales has the strictest regime and requires that an employee is provided with 14 days written notice, and provided with details including the method of surveillance, the commencement of the surveillance and whether the surveillance will be continuous or intermittent,” she told IT Pro.

Australia’s research institutes have been developing wearables for many years – the CSIRO has its ReMoTe system that is in trial with a commercialisation partner, and NICTA has been working with the University of South Australia’s Wearable Computer Lab to develop a system to support the blind.

Early exploration on wearable computing devices in the workplace – not to mention thegreat success of GPS-enabled wearables in our sporting elites’ workplaces to track their movements and performance – has shown encouraging signs that the wearables hype isn’t just the usual round of IT marketing dollars at work.

Research by the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and sponsored by Rackspace, found that people wearing devices such as brain activity sensors, motion monitors and posture coaches, boosted productivity by 8.5 per cent and job satisfaction levels by 3.5 per cent.

While there are many Australian organisations only just finally getting their shops in order to deal with standard enterprise mobility opportunities – including smartphones, tablets and BYOD – interest in officially supporting wearables is also emerging.

Yet, there has been little discussion to date on the impact wearables will have on employee privacy and how organisations can deal with this challenge.

As Google has found out with the backlash to Glass in some parts of the US, and our dear public servants at the Department of Parliamentary Services found in a recent grilling by  Senator John Faulkner, no one likes being spied on – especially at work.

And this is a catch-22 of wearables in the workplace.

In an enterprise setting mobile devices like phones and tablets aren’t deliberately deployed to monitor employees – although devices can and likely are monitored by app, device and operating system creators like Google and Apple, and of course, the Five Eyes and other state actors.

For the most part wearables, however, are meant to monitor some part of us, our environment or our location. Even those that are consumer-grade BYO wearables will have some form of monitoring happening by the provider.

Enter Orwell’s Big Brother – or our fear of it. As many organisations found out when GPS trackers were installed on company vehicles, many employees and unions don’t like the idea of management watching them.

But when it comes to wearables in the workplace CIOs and business leaders must not only comply with employee records obligations.

They also have to ensure employees and the organisational culture supports the wearables strategy. Culture does eat strategy for breakfast after all.

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