All posts by Paul French

The monitored office: Dystopian future workplace or efficient business of tomorrow?

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Biometrics and wearables are making their way into the workplace as employers modernise access control and time-keeping. But with no legal framework in place, does this trend benefit businesses or violate employees’ rights?

The pressures facing businesses today are enormous. The economic crisis, competition in the marketplace and the continued rise of the data-driven culture mean employees are expected to work smarter and faster than ever before.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that technology that promises to help people do just that is generating excitement in boardrooms across the world. From Coca Cola to Apple and hundreds of companies in between, biometric and wearable technology is being explored to make businesses run quicker, safer and in a more cost effective way.

Early adopters suggest these types of technology are having a positive impact on performance but critics warn that a surveillance culture can lead to stress, sickness absence and higher staff turnover. So where should the line be drawn? And what can you do if you don’t fancy working in an office where Big Brother is watching you at all times?

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Biometrics on the rise

In February tech consultancy Gartner projected that the number of organisations using biometric authentication for mobile devices would rise from five percent to 30% by 2016. As biometric technology has improved over the last decade, the use of fingerprint, face, voice and hand authentication has emerged as a more efficient alternative to more traditional access control methods such as cards, PINs and passwords.

“Biometrics are used across all vertical markets to solve the identity management challenge by linking physical and digital identities,” says Elaine Bliss, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Crossmatch, a leader in biometric-based identity management tech.


The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft


“Businesses are using biometrics to secure access to networks and applications so they know for sure who accessed what, when. They are also using biometrics to reduce fraud in payroll and transactions. Biometric solutions empower businesses to mitigate risk, drive productivity and improve service levels.

“Among the different biometrics, fingerprints are the most mature and dominant biometric used in commercial applications. The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft, who have incorporated fingerprint biometrics directly into their products.”

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Vast potential for wearables

Wearable technology has been pioneered commercially over the last few years by the likes of the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone UP and the much-vaunted Google Glass. Now research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of technology is beginning to find its way into offices and factories around the world.

Research from open cloud company Rackspace, which surveyed over 4,000 people in the US and UK in 2013, found that a small number of early adopter businesses (six percent) are already providing wearable technology devices for their employees. They also found that there is scope for the use of wearable technology in business to increase, with a third of respondents stating that they would be willing to wear devices offered by their employer.

“There are two types of wearable technology – wrist mounted and head mounted,” says Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte in Canada. “Wrist mounted wearables are predominantly used to authenticate who you are.

“At Deloitte, our consultants used to spend a lot of time filling out time sheets on their PCs and mobiles to map their movements around the world. Now we’re using wrist mounted time trackers, the jobs and clients people are working with is logged automatically.”


If you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited


However, it is head mounted wearable technology that offers the most exciting potential for development, giving users the benefit of hands-free working, augmented reality and the ability to take pictures and video whilst they’re on the move.

“Imagine if you’re driving around a warehouse on a forklift truck, you’d be able to wear a device that could tell you exactly where the pallet you’re looking for is and what is stacked in front of it,” explains Stewart. “You’d also be able to record what you were doing so that, for instance, if one of the boxes was broken when you took it down you’d be able to prove it and demonstrate that you carried out your work with all due care.

“The potential is enormous but the appetite varies by industry. In the banking sector, the view is that wearable technology would not benefit either the customers or the businesses. However, if you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited. They expect to see wearable technology become widely used within five years and adopted as best practice within ten.”

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The next frontier

People are already working on the convergence of biometric and wearable technology to provide the ultimate authentication device. Last year Bionym created the Nymi bracelet, a wearable powered by a person’s unique cardiac rhythm that can be used instead of swipe cards and passwords to help users sign into computers and open doors.

“Your heartbeat is consistent, which makes it different from an iris or fingerprint which needs to be scanned,” says Lee Odess, general manager at Brivo Labs, which is partnering with Bionym to develop the technology. “This makes it a frictionless form of identification, since you don’t need to stop to be verified.


The next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information


“We are now beginning to see technology that allows people to present themselves to spaces and in response, spaces know what to do with this knowledge. This means that, while opening doors and unlocking passwords are a starting point, the next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information, such as the specific seat they are assigned to at a baseball game or that a concession stand several feet away that might trigger a peanut allergy.

“It’s not just about a signing in. It’s about bringing attributes about yourself so that you can have a curated experience.”

Big Brother is watching

While the possibilities opened up by biometric and wearable technology are exciting to many, they are a source of concern to many others. The UK’s biggest trade union, UNISON, has warned of the dangers of what it calls a surveillance culture and is rallying members on how to fight the introduction of such technologies in their workplaces.

“UNISON believes that workers should not be subject to unnecessary or intrusive monitoring at work,” the union said in a factsheet sent out to members. “A surveillance culture in the workplace can lead to increased stress, sickness absence and staff turnover. Biometric monitoring, particularly for the purposes of checking on time-keeping, clearly qualifies as an over-the-top and unnecessary measure.


UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring


“There is also the question of the kind of relationship that employers want to have with their staff. The process of finger-printing is understandably associated with criminality in the public mind. So when employers start fingerprinting their own staff it sends out a very negative and confrontational message. UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring.”

Aside from issues of privacy the use of wearable technology could, if handled badly, have further negative impacts upon the companies that are employing it, according to Duncan Stewart.

“If you have employees going around with wearable cameras will that lead to people spying on each other?” he says. “That could be a problem but the biggest thing would be the potential threat to intellectual property (IP). Lots of sensitive processes take place behind closed doors. If everyone is recording everything then it could easily lead to leaks that could cost companies billions of dollars in lost IP.”

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Keeping it legal

As there are no direct laws governing the use of biometrics and wearable technology in the UK, employers would have to obtain the consent of their staff to record and process biometric data in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. But what can you do if you’re placed in a position where you feel uncomfortable by the technology your boss is asking you to use?

“Employees are likely to be suspicious that the information will be used for other purposes and employers would need to explain why they are looking to impose change, how it will affect staff and how the information will be used,” explains Chris Tutton, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell.


The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt outpace the development of workplace rules


“An employer should consult its workforce before introducing this type of new technology and ensure they deal with all concerns in a reasonable manner. If this does not allay the employees’ concerns, they should discuss these with their employer. Employees have the right to raise a grievance about their working conditions and employers must deal with these appropriately in accordance with the ACAS Code of Practice.

“If the business mishandles the process and for example, adopts a heavy handed approach, an employee might be able to claim that this has undermined his trust and confidence in the employer and decide to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. The employee would need to have at least two years’ service to bring such a claim, but if successful, he could be awarded up to twelve months gross pay.

“The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt continue to outpace the development of legislation and workplace rules. Whilst the legal framework slowly catches up, workplace norms will have to recalibrate as these technologies become all the more pervasive.”


Image two courtesy of Google and image four courtesy of Jawbone


The Crypto Factor: Can Bitcoin ever rival the dollar?

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In October 2013 the world’s first Bitcoin ATM opened for business in Vancouver, Canada. The move signified the cryptocurrency’s transformation from the digital world to the mainstream and since then the floodgates have opened.

The US got its first Bitcoin ATM in February with the UK following suit a month later. A film – The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin – was released in April and four months later the ultimate recognition came when the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its first advisory on virtual currency.

“I think the idea of grass-roots, people created currency appeals to many, especially given the dysfunction of the financial system and recent political events,” explains Bitcoin developer Mike Hearn. “But ultimately it’s popular because it’s cheap and relatively easy.”

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Competing cryptocurrencies

Success breeds imitation and the world of cryptocurrency is no exception. Inspired by the progress of Bitcoin, similar currency methods such as Dogecoin, Monacoin and Litecoin have entered the market over the last few years, each seeking to bring something slightly different to the table. But do any of them pose a threat to the Bitcoin dominance?

“There are several hundred cryptocurrencies traded on the market and new ones launched practically every day,” says economist Peter Surda. “However, many of those that existed were abandoned or were launched but didn’t trade.

“Most of them are almost identical to Bitcoin with only minor parameter changes. If there are cryptocurrencies that have more advantages than Bitcoin, they may become more successful one day but there are many factors that can hypothetically affect this decision so we cannot predict it accurately.”


“There are several hundred cryptocurrencies traded on the market”


Security concerns

Bitcoins are created mathematically through a process described as mining. Each time a bitcoin is traded or mined, that transaction is broadcast across the peer-to-peer network that underpins the system, helping to establish the current price of each bitcoin.

The cryptography in-built into bitcoins is supposed to insulate them from theft and counterfeiting. However, several high-profile security breaches have raised concerns over the safety of Bitcoin and the online wallets people use to store them.

In November 2013 hackers made off 1,295 bitcoins, worth nearly $1m at the time, by raiding free online wallets provided by the Danish company Bitcoin Internet Payment System (BIPS). Even more catastrophic, the world’s most prominent Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox was forced to close down after it lost 850,000 of its clients’ bitcoins with a street value of $395m following a cyber attack in February.

“The Bitcoin protocol itself is very safe but it can be also used in an unsafe way,” says Surda. “Some service providers like Mt Gox become overwhelmed and confused and don’t know how to use Bitcoin in a secure way. Many of the solutions that are theoretically possible are not available yet in a way that can be used by non-experts and even experts make mistakes.

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“Individuals should not keep bitcoins at an exchange or in a shared wallet. Larger sums should be kept in cold storage – a device that is not connected to the internet. Multi-signature wallets have also started to appear in solutions that are accessible for normal users. They allow control of a balance to be split across several people and devices.

“For smaller amounts, a wallet on a mobile phone provides a good balance between security and usability. I do not recommend using general purpose computers such as a Windows or a Mac though, unless you use an additional security device.”


“In 2013 hackers made off 1,295 bitcoins, worth nearly $1m at the time”


Volatile values

Financial markets like to see stability in their currencies and this is one area where Bitcoin seriously fails against its more established rivals. In just over twelve months the value of a bitcoin has fluctuated from $100 to $1,200 and back down to its current price of $565.

“Bitcoin exhibits extreme price volatility because its future is uncertain and few of the outstanding e-coins are traded,” says Mark T Williams, risk management practitioner and master lecturer at Boston University. “On an average day it is not uncommon for less than 1% of outstanding bitcoins to trade.


“Bitcoin’s future is uncertain and few of the outstanding e-coins are traded”


“Also there is excessive hoarding by owners, over 90%, which undermines one of the essential ingredients needed for a healthy market. Without fluid trading, even a relatively small sell order can cause prices to crumble. On 14 February 2014, one trade of 6,000 e-coins caused a flash crash, momentarily knocking prices down by 80%.”

“Bitcoin is also volatile because it is not legal tender and there is no requirement that businesses have to accept it to settle debts. Its value is highly speculative and linked to hopes it will be widely accepted in the future. However there is no requirement that it has to be accepted or used to settle transactions so the true value is a guessing game about the future, level of regulation, adoption and safety for consumers.”

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Who’s in control?

Bitcoin prides itself on the fact that unlike traditional currencies, it is decentralised and not beholden to the whims of a bank or other controlling authority.

However, researchers from Cornell University said in June that they believed a single mining pool known as GHash had managed to gain control of 51% of Bitcoin’s crytptographic output on several occasions.

“A 51 percenter can control which Bitcoin transactions happen,” says Ittay Eyal, a post-doctorate researcher in Cornell’s Department of Computer Science. “It becomes a monopoly. It can set arbitrarily high transaction fees, for example, or even extort someone to allow them to perform transactions. It could block or delay all transactions but its own.

“One of Bitcoin’s goals was to be a free system, independent of anyone’s control. With small pools, no one has this kind of control. With a 51 percenter, there is.”


“A 51 percenter can control which Bitcoin transactions happen”


Preventing dodgy business

Billed as anonymous and untraceable, it is little wonder that Bitcoin has attracted the attention of the criminal classes. With the currency having reportedly been used to buy drugs and other undesirable items on the Silk Road – an online black market – governments around the world are growing concerned that it might be the perfect way for criminal organisations to launder their money.

Several countries – notably China – have already placed restrictions on the use of Bitcoin and in January the New York Department of Financial Services said it plans to create a BitLicense for some Bitcoin-based businesses in an attempt to clamp down on suspected criminal activity. This hasn’t gone down well with some of those closest to the cryptocurrency.

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“Bitcoin is already heavily regulated,” says Hearn. “Any entity that interacts with the financial system is. More regulation a la the BitLicense can only hurt, in my opinion.

“When people say ‘we need regulation’ what they normally mean is ‘the existing regulations are so vague we don’t know if we’re breaking the law or not, so we need clarification and possibly new rules as a part of that process’. In fact the regulation is creating the uncertainty and if there was none at all, that uncertainty would go away too.”


“Several countries have placed restrictions on the use of Bitcoin”


The path to mainstream

Debate about the future prospects of Bitcoin is fierce. Many commentators believe that without mainstream rules and regulations, the cryptocurrency will never to truly rival more established currencies like the dollar and the pound.

“Bitcoin will remain only a fringe currency and not meaningfully compete with hard currencies unless it gains legal tender status and succumbs to greater regulation and tighter oversight,” says Williams. “Currently there is no legal protection for consumers that buy and sell bitcoins. In this current unregulated environment the mass public will remain hesitant about using Bitcoin.”

However, Surda believes that Bitcoin has the potential for growth in emerging territories and the B2B sector whilst Hearn offers a pragmatic view of the future.

“I would like to see it become widely used,” he says. “But I suspect it’ll be analogous to the internet: that didn’t kill books, but people do read a lot online that wouldn’t have made sense to publish as a book. So it will be with Bitcoin.”