When the Carolina Panthers go helmet-to-helmet against the Denver Broncos for Super Bowl 50 this Sunday, every player will be wearing nickel-sized sensors, one tucked under each shoulder pad. During the game, the sensors will emit a unique radio frequency fifteen times every second, pinging dozens of receivers mounted around Levi's Stadium, tracking not just where on the field a player is, but his speed, his acceleration, even which direction he's facing.
Almost instantly, that data will feed detailed information about player performance to live sports broadcasters and football fans using the NFL's app for Xbox One. A few miles away, engineers at Zebra Technologies' San Jose office will watch this all unfold from a control room, making sure all that data is captured without a hitch. Over the past season, Zebra has tracked in exacting detail every player from every team at every single game.
When Zebra first considered tracking football players with RFID, the company was mostly interested in how it would enhance the experience of fandom and introduce even more stats to rabid Fantasy Football players. But it's becoming clear that the data is also going to change the game itself.
Jill Stelfox, who manages Zebra's location solutions group, told me data is already highlighting changes the League might want to implement. They discovered, for example, that in the course of a play running backs run way farther than anyone thought they did, signaling that perhaps running endurance should be more of a priority during practice. They also found that refs do almost as much running as the players and run almost as fast, meaning that a valuable quality in a ref is their mile time and running endurance. "That’s hard," said Stelfox. "A lot of our refs in football are senior folks.”
Zebra still hasn't collected enough data to really put it all to work and game-day data isn't yet shared with teams at all, but data-driven decision-making is where the NFL is headed. And it's where the rest of the workplace is headed too, whether you're a barista, a doctor, a traveling salesman or a cubicle dweller at Zebra's San Jose office.
When Stelfox wants to demonstrate Zebra's technology to potential clients that aren't pro sports leagues, she shows them how Zebra's tracking its California employees, who wear RFID-tag-embedded badges that transmit their inter-office whereabouts to Zebra's cloud. So when Stelfox is giving a product demo, she can pull up a god's eye-view of her home base, revealing with down-to-the-inch precision where everyone is, and, sometimes even what they are doing.
Occasionally, Stelfox catches the office as it erupts in a whir of fast-paced activity, a sign that a NERF gun battle is underway. More often, most Zebra workers are just going about business as usual. But one day last year, Stelfox was giving a demo when she noticed a peculiarity: none of her hardware engineers were where they were supposed to be, for the third day in a row. She read that to mean that something was possibly very wrong.
“I came back to the office and said, ‘What is going on?,” she told me. “They just said, ‘What do you mean?’”
The engineers had never suspected Stelfox was on to them, with her eye in the internet-connected sky. When she told them she'd noticed that for three days in a row they had all been huddled in the quality assurance lab instead of at their desks, they confessed there was a significant snag in the development of a new product.
“We think of our office as a demonstration environment so we track all the time,” she told me.
Zebra was founded in 1969 as a manufacturer of high-speed electromechanical products and made a name for itself debuting the world's first barcode printer in 1982. It was only in 2008 that it began acquiring companies to help it build out its RFID technology. Most of its trackers are used in industrial settings like auto assembly lines and trucking yards, so it didn’t really occur to Stelfox it might be useful data in her own office until patterns started appearing, like the hidden image in a magic eye. Based on the tracking, Zebra has made tweaks to its own workplace, like rethinking which departments should be near each other and how desks are set up.
For Stelfox, the power of technology like RFID is that people, like her engineers, forget that they are being tracked.
"In old-school time and motion studies, you would never behave like yourself," she told me. "But after a few days you might not even think about an RFID badge being there. The technology is out of the way."
Still, Zebra doesn't require every employee to wear an RFID badge every day—they just ask that employees put them on if they want to, or if they remember, so that enough people are wearing them during demos of the product. Stelfox told me that the idea of mandatory tracking of every move of every employee actually kind of creeps her out.
"This idea of tracking people for verification of honesty," she said, "gosh I hope that that’s not the use of this technology."
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Surveillance is becoming standard in the American workplace. Back in 2007, a survey by the American Management Association found that 45 percent of employers tracked content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard; 73 percent used technology to automatically monitor e-mail; and 40 percent actually assigned a real human to manually read and review emails. Just imagine how those numbers must have grown by now.
When academic types discuss surveillance, they frequently invoke Michel Foucault’s interpretation of the Panopticon, a prison design conceived of by 18th century social theorist Jeremy Bentham in which every inmate could be watched by a single guard, without any way to tell whether they were being watched. It's a pretty obvious metaphor for the surveillance state.
Today, though, Foucault’s Panopticon metaphor doesn't stretch quite far enough. The surveilled worker is no longer merely watched by an omniscient overseer to make sure no one's stealing company secrets or wasting too much time on Facebook. The surveilled worker is probed, analyzed and measured based on all that data collected in the course of surveillance.
UPS delivery workers are judged not just for completing assigned deliveries, but by data indicating how quickly they did so, how fast they drove and whether or not they were wearing their seatbelt. In office environments, major corporations are hiring companies that can help them determine things like how often an employee collaborates with others or even their general attitude and mood. A Christian college that is making all of its freshmen track their fitness with Fitbits went viral this month, but companies are increasingly pushing employees to do the same thing.
Not so long ago, the main questions workplace surveillance sought to answer was whether an employee was honest and efficient. Now it seeks to find out exactly how that employee stacks up to everyone else.
In a survey discussing workplace surveillance last month, the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans were perfectly okay with being tracked, as long as an employer gave them a good reason (such as potential workplace theft).
Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, which advocates for workers, hypothesized that this is probably because most Americans don’t realize how much tracking is really going on.
“Most people aren’t concerned because they don’t know what the monitoring is really going to be like,” he told me. “There are so many ways to track someone and some ways are constructive and others are not. It’s not a question of good or bad. Technology is inherently neither. What determines its value is how it's used.”
In fields like trucking, mining, manufacturing and oil drilling, tracking has long been normalized, as it measures not just efficiency but safety in high-risk environments. For example, at Boeing, another of Zebra's major clients, employees' RFID tags signal whether they're safely strapped into a harness when they are up on cherry pickers working on planes. If they aren’t, the system automatically lowers the platform to the ground, to prevent a fall.
Long-haul truck driving was a frontier in the realm of workplace surveillance, with a federal mandate requiring the installation of electronic logging devices in every single truck. The idea was to help drivers keep more accurate logs of their hours, and prevent crashes by fatigued drivers. (The drivers didn't love it, with some destroying the tracking equipment and a trucking association suing saying the close tracking of their hours might actually encourage drivers to lengthen their drives.)
These days, elaborate tracking measures are moving far beyond the truck driver’s cabin, and into white collar settings.
Dr. John Coates, a former Goldman Sachs trader-turned-Cambridge neuroscientist is studying how to track elements of a Wall Street trader’s health to determine how they will perform on the floor.
“We view performance in the market in the same manner as a sports physiologist,” Coates told me. “The stage of your body completely predicts how well you’re going to do.”
Coates was interested in figuring out what happens in the body when a trader on a “crazy winning streak blows up and goes crazy.” By tracking traders (using wearable sensors and other methods), he found that certain hormones, like testosterone, cortisol and adrenaline, directly affect risk appetite and thus the kinds of decisions traders make. He found, for example, that when traders’ cortisol levels went up, it caused them to become more risk-averse.
“This mechanism is really important during a crisis. In a bear market, you need people to take risk. If you don’t then there’s a crash,” Coates said. Right now, Coates is working with a handful of hedge funds using wearable tech to “optimize” traders by tracking certain elements of their physiology, like heart rate variability. He’s working on developing his own hardware to track body readings that he thinks are important based on his findings—eventually he imagines that, for example, a trader might take stock of their own hormone levels in the morning, and those levels would become a factor that tempers how they make decisions on the trading floor. He’s also had interest from other industries, like law firms.
“The elevated presence of one freaking molecule in the morning can predict your [profit and loss] in the afternoon,” he said. “So much of the real activity in trading is taking place subconsciously.”
Workplace surveillance technology can now discern much, much more than simply where an employee is or what they are doing. Bank of America is among the companies that contracts with Sociometric Solutions, a start-up that helps employers discern things about a company's social networks, such as who talks to whom and even what tone of voice they are doing it in. Another company, Hitachi, unveiled technology last year that it says can help employers tell what mood employees are in (all in the name of creating a happier workplace, of course).
Alex Pentland, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics lab, pioneered the technology behind Sociometric Solutions, which is run by some of his students. He outfitted employees at banks and universities with smartphones and badges packed with tiny sensors to detect when people are facing one another, what kind of gestures they were making and the tone of their voice.
“We discovered all of these things about work environments,” Pentland said. “Like that people don’t work well together if there’s one person who always holds the floor.”
Sociometric Solutions tracks data that can help a company figure out what makes a good team and what does not. At one company, they discovered that the most important interactions between salespeople outside their teams happened at the coffee machine.
“What we track are all things we know intuitively, but we forget them in real time,” he said. “When we give people feedback, things like meetings run much more smoothly.”
Both Coates and Pentland champion the idea of subverting the inherent power structures of surveillance by giving the data to the employees. But that's not how office surveillance has traditionally gone down.
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Workplace tracking is an American tradition that dates back to the industrial revolution. Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer who worked as an efficiency consultant to businesses at the turn of the 20th century, proselytized that the unobserved worker is an inefficient one. Henry Ford famously performed time-motion studies on his workers, pacing the factory floor with a stopwatch to encourage greater efficiency. He also hired private investigators to spy on employees at home and make sure their personal lives didn’t bleed into work. The modern office was designed so that employees never feel as though they are far from their employer’s gaze, rows of cubicles subject to the oversight of a man behind an office door.
But Coates and Pentland view tracking as something that should empower and inform an employee to be better at their jobs.
"Whenever you bring in a new technology there's always some idiot who thinks they can micromanage their workers," Pentland told me. "There's really not even much reason for a boss to have access to our data."
In both models, bosses receive aggregate, anonymized data to help them understand workplace dynamics and make broad decisions about things like how to organize the office or when to make traders go home. But the granular, individual feedback is reserved only for those being tracked. The object of information can decide to do with the information whatever he like.
But the sheer existence of the information may already skew the power dynamics. For this story, I was curious what it would feel like to be tracked this closely. I allowed my editor, Kashmir Hill, 24/7 access to my phone’s location data, using the standard iPhone app Find My Friends. One of our colleagues built a Slackbot that would monitor when I logged in and out of our workplace communication hub. And I gave her access to my RescueTime account, which could tell her information such as how much time I spent on Facebook versus researching or writing in Google Docs.
Once, she tried to look at RescueTime to figure out whether a story was coming in, and saw it had taken me about four hours to write it. Another time, she noticed I was out on a run instead of at the office and sent me a message that said “I see you running,” which was frankly pretty creepy.
Overall, though, her findings were rather mundane. She couldn’t tell, for instance, how much time I spent out in the field reporting versus sitting at my desk, an important element of the job. And she didn’t have time to comb through every website I visited, to see, for example, that one day I Googled an ex-boyfriend while procrastinating writing this story.
“The real way I monitor you all the time are the analytics about readership that I get on the stories you publish,” she told me, via Slack.
Part of the reason I was willing to submit to this experiment was that I didn’t feel like I had anything to worry about. But knowing that I was being monitored still created anxiety. It made me self-concious that I was spending too long on certain stories or not long enough on others. I wondered whether she would think I got up and logged online too late in the morning or spent too much time obsessing over election coverage before digging in to work. I was conscientious of the fact that she could easily tell how often I exercised from location data, whether I stayed out too late drinking or probably, even, if I was out on a date.
As far back as 1990 studies have indicated that electronic performance monitoring can cause anxiety, depression, anger, severe fatigue, headaches and musculoskeletal injuries. Even without allowing access to my location and internet browsing history, “soft surveillance” methods—like being able to tell whether I’m logged in to Slack—creates a fair amount of anxiety of its own.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who controls surveillance data, or even really what that data is. Surveillance is no longer just about watching us. It’s about knowing us. Maybe one day it will make us better football players or journalists. But it also means that others have the power to peer into parts of our lives we wouldn’t usually bring up at the office water cooler—or the equivalent Slack chatroom.