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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Surveillance is Turning Workers Into Fungible Cogs

Ifeoma Ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 19, 2017.

Common wisdom tells us that, with time, science fiction soon becomes reality.

The film Gattaca depicted a world of technological advancements in genetic manipulation such that genetic enhancements for offspring are commonplace for who can afford it and employment is strictly dictated by genetic profile—thus reducing the “in-valids,” that is, those without genetic enhancements to second class economic status in the labor market.

Recent technological discoveries such as CRISPR, which allows for the editing of the human genome, may soon transport us all to that world. Hastening our arrival, is a recent piece of legislation, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, which is now making its way through Congress. That bill would allow employers to collect the genetic information of their employees through workplace wellness programs.

In addition to the expanded collection of genetic information, technological advancements that allow for the wholesale capture of personal  data—information encompassing the minutiae of the public and private lives of American citizens—represent an urgent issue. That is why it’s essential for us to explore the democratic processes available to American workers to re-exert control over the capture and use of their personal information by employers and data brokers alike.

The problems associated with the collection of health data in the workplace are multifold, as I’ve written in the past. In addition to the potential for employment discrimination on the basis of health status, there is also the risk of privacy invasions as the data collected may be sold to third parties without the knowledge or consent of the employee. When it comes to privacy, however, within our democracy, workers seem powerless against a growing trend toward more invasive management practices enabled by emerging technologies.

As my co-authors and I wrote in an article for the California Law Review, while the internet and associated technologies have heralded the advent of the unbounded workplace, freedom from set work hours, and the gig economy, those technological advancements have also ushered in management practices that call for greater surveillance and control over employees’ information, including of the sort of information that would have earlier been deemed outside the purview of the employer.

In an era of “disrupt everything,” we must pause to ask whether emerging technologies are disruptive to the very fabric of our democracy, not just in the mechanical process of voting in the presidential election, but also in the freedom to direct the course of our everyday work lives. After all, what use is a democracy wherein workers are reduced to quantifiable and fungible cogs, to be easily discarded for showing any signs of human frailty?

Ifeoma Ajunwa is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and an incoming professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

Jun 7, 2017