Intelligent Building Systems and Workplace Privacy

Citation

  • Zon, N., Dharamshi, A., Irwin, J. (2022). Intelligent Building Systems and Workplace Privacy. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON.

Executive Summary

Modern buildings are much more than bricks and beams. With the introduction of intelligent building systems, these spaces are digital environments as well as physical ones. Intelligent building systems use digital technologies and sensors to monitor and manage a building and its systems, such as lighting and ventilation. These technologies can make buildings more environmentally friendly, more comfortable, and less expensive to operate. However, in doing so, they also generate vast quantities of data about people spending time in these buildings, presenting a growing risk to digital privacy, especially for employees in the workplace.

Workplace privacy in intelligent buildings is a growing challenge

There has been a surge in adoption of intelligent building systems in workplaces in recent years. The number of connected building devices doubled in the past five years. Adoption was accelerated by the pandemic; unoccupied spaces, public health measures, and concerns about liability changed the calculus in favour of investment. Intelligent building systems installed as part of pandemic responses have included HVAC upgrades; temperature and distancing monitoring supported by infrared cameras and computer vision; and contactless entry systems.

Intelligent building systems are a privacy risk for employees

These privacy risks apply to anyone passing through these spaces, but they are most significant for employees with intelligent building systems in their workplaces.

  • Employees are subject to significant data collection. Employees are monitored for most of their waking hours, often with systems installed by their employers explicitly to track their movements and behaviours.
  • Data in the workplace can have significant, long-lasting consequences for employees. The information collected about employees can influence their career prospects and reveal sensitive information to their employers
  • Current policy frameworks do not adequately protect employee privacy. Most protections hinge on employee consent — an unrealistic approach given the power dynamics of an employment relationship. Policies have also failed to keep pace with the evolution of monitoring technology.

There is a policy gap

Workplace privacy in Canada is covered by a loose patchwork of laws and policies. This patchwork leaves gaps in privacy protections for Canadian workers:

  • Privacy protections include laws at the federal and provincial level. These laws have little to say about employee privacy and the power dynamics of workplaces.
  • Employment frameworks are primarily in provincial jurisdiction and do not directly address electronic surveillance and privacy.
  • International laws and standards influence the Canadian marketplace but do not provide direct accountability for Canadian workers.

Recommendations

The levers to protect employee privacy can be found in a range of hands. This report identifies a variety of potential responses, broadly grouped into three categories:

Reinforcing protections

  • Legislative reform
  • Strengthening enforcement
  • Responsive regulation

Empowering workers

  • Engage workers in policymaking
  • Shared governance and decision-making
  • Strengthen advocacy avenues for workers

Supporting industry leadership

  • Standardization
  • Capacity building and best practices

Summary for Policymakers