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How your boss can keep you on a leash

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:44 AM EST, Sun February 2, 2014
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A device, the Hitachi Business Microscope, is designed to track workers in the workplace
  • Bob Greene: This technology allows corporations to become their own, private NSAs
  • He says while maker of device says this can help increase productivity, what about morale?
  • Greene: Workers are likely to be resentful about being kept on an electronic leash

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014.

(CNN) -- If you're a person who hates it when your supervisor looks over your shoulder at work, you may want to stop reading this column right now.

Because what follows is only going to depress you.

Hitachi, the big electronics company based in Japan, is manufacturing and selling to corporations a device intended to increase efficiency in the workplace. It has a rather bland and generic-sounding name: the Hitachi Business Microscope.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

But what it is capable of doing ... well, just imagine being followed around the office or the factory all day by the snoopiest boss in the world. Even into the restroom.

And, the thing is, once you hear about it, you just know that, from a management point of view, it is an innovation of absolute genius.

Here's how it works:

The device looks like an employee ID badge that most companies issue. Workers are instructed to wear it in the office.

Embedded inside each badge, according to Hitachi, are "infrared sensors, an accelerometer, a microphone sensor and a wireless communication device."

Hitachi says that the badges record and transmit to management "who talks to whom, how often, where and how energetically."

It tracks everything.

If you get up to walk around the office a lot, the badge sends information to management about how often you do it, and where you go.

If you stop to talk with people throughout the day, the badge transmits who you're talking to (by reading your co-workers' badges), and for how long.

Do you contribute at meetings, or just sit there? Either way, the badge tells your bosses.

The stated intention of this is to increase productivity and get the most out of employees.

But a case can be made that, however much we worry that the National Security Agency may be peeking into our lives, we should be just as concerned -- or more -- about the potential for corporations to become their own, private NSAs.

And there's not much, in the future, that employees will be able to do about it. With government surveillance, the public can complain that the state has no right to be scrutinizing the lives of its citizens so intrusively. But corporations can make the argument that supervisors have always been encouraged to keep an eye on how workers are spending their time when they're on the clock -- and that electronic tools such as the Business Microscope are simply a 21st-century way to do that.

The employers are paying for their workers' time, the argument will go -- and if the employees don't like being accountable for how they spend that time, they can always choose to work elsewhere.

Hitachi says that by analyzing the "enormous amount of data collected with the Business Microscope, it will be possible to propose methods to improve organizational communication and quantitatively evaluate efficacy." Among the activities the badges record and transmit, according to Hitachi, are "the distance between people talking face-to face" and "an individual's activity level (active or nonactive), which is determined on the basis of subtle movements detected (such as talking, nodding and silence)."

And the sensor badges never sleep. They never take breaks. They don't go to lunch. As H. James Wilson, a senior researcher at Babson Executive Education, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the badges not only transmit who employees are talking to and how long the conversations go on, but can "also measure how well they're talking to them." If you're in a conference room with colleagues and they are animated participants in a discussion about, say, sales strategy, while you just remain quiet in your seat, the badge knows it.

Businesses have long dreamed of maximum efficiency, and Hitachi says that, since the Business Microscope was first developed in its labs in 2007, "over one million days of human behavior and big data" have been collected.

(You can imagine the surveillance experts at NSA, and at spy agencies for governments around the world, hearing about what Hitachi has come up with, shaking their heads in admiration, and saying: "Boy, those guys are good!")

The long-term question will be whether companies, in the name of workplace output, will want to risk the morale problems that will inevitably arise among employees who are instructed to wear such devices, manufactured either by Hitachi or by other firms that will engineer their own digital tracking machinery. Technology always wins, but victory can come with a price.

And if employees bristle and become resentful about being kept on such a short electronic leash, that could bring about productivity problems of a different sort. Unhappy workers are not motivated to put in extra effort.

Of course, the employees could get up from their desks, congregate in an out-of-the-way corner of the office, and bitterly complain about it all.

But the badges would know.

And tell.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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