Photo: Brian Stauffer
Jan. 6, 2020 1:00 pm ET
5 minute read
For many employees, the workday starts by swiping a plastic ID card to enter the office. But employers can’t always be sure who’s holding the card.
That humble ID badge is starting to be replaced by biometric identification systems, microchip implants and tools that monitor workers’ gaits or typing habits—technologies that might not only make workplaces more secure and easier to navigate but also generate personalized health and productivity data.
It’s easy to see why some employers are already using technologies like face and iris scans, which are more difficult to spoof than standard plastic ID cards. Cameras scan and record the faces of employees and temporary contractors, allowing the workers to bypass turnstiles. Companies can easily reconfigure existing office cameras with facial-recognition technology. When a person leaves a job, the employer can tag the person’s face so cameras block re-entrance.
The technology is catching on at companies with large workforces. Construction firms, for example, regularly send new workers to building sites and need a method to easily track who’s there, says Shaun Moore, chief executive of Trueface, a facial-recognition provider. He declined to name companies using Trueface.
However, research shows facial recognition isn’t always accurate, particularly when identifying people of color. Governments are starting to draft legislation to restrict how it can be used. Several U.S. cities including San Francisco have banned government agencies from using the technology. Europe’s privacy laws require special safeguards to protect biometric data.
Smartphones could be an easy replacement for traditional IDs because most workers already have them, says Lars Ericson of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a U.S. government research arm. In the near future, workers could download apps that signal to office sensors when they arrive at work. Motion sensors built into phones can record how people move around throughout the day to verify the right person is holding the device.
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Researchers are developing a technology called gait recognition, which uses cameras to identify people based on their body shape and how they move, and say it could one day be implemented in U.S. offices. In places with especially tight security, such as workplaces that handle hazardous materials or heavy machinery, several different ID technologies could be linked to repeatedly identify workers as they move around, says Vir Phoha, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University. Video cameras might recognize people’s faces as they enter a building, and later analyze how they walk to identify them again. Software could assess an employee’s typing to verify whether it’s the same person identified earlier in the day.
Some early adopters already offer employees the option of using microchips in their hands to open doors, log in to office computers, reserve conference rooms and even pay for vending-machine snacks. Roughly the size of a grain of rice, the microchips are implanted under the skin, usually between the thumb and forefinger, where they cannot be felt, and can then be scanned over chip readers. The microchips can’t be lost, stolen or copied, says Jowan Österlund, chief executive of Biohax International, a Swedish maker of implantable ID chips.
It’s unclear whether the technology will catch on. Workers may bristle at implanting hardware under their skin, especially without knowing if future employers will use the same method, says Edgar Whitley, an associate professor of information systems at the London School of Economics. There is little research on health and safety concerns. Scientists have not found significant evidence that microchips cause cancer or interfere with MRI scans or pharmaceutical drugs, according to a 2017 report from the European Parliament.
Within the next three years, Mr. Österlund says he wants to develop microchips that can track wearers’ health data. Workers could opt to share details such as their stress levels and pulse rate with employers, helping companies determine whether an office environment is healthy, he says.
Others also see IDs as a means to better employee health. In the future, offices likely will be outfitted with many sensors to connect with employees’ devices and analyze data to improve their well-being and the workplace environment. Nokia Corp. ’s Bell Labs is building a pocket-size device that takes 3-D images of users’ thumbprints, using a laser to scan deep below a person’s skin. Ophthalmologists and optometrists use the same technology, called optical coherence tomography, for detailed retina scans. The device could send workers results about their blood chemistry and eventually record glucose and cortisol levels, says Chris White, a lab leader at Bell Labs.
Gait recognition could reveal how employees’ behavior and well-being change over time. If people appear distressed or more tired than usual around the time of a big corporate decision or change in working hours, that could help managers decide whether to change strategy, Mr. White says.
“That ability for an enterprise to actually understand their workforce is something that could be critically important,” Mr. White says. The same data might push employees to see a doctor. Of course, there are no guarantees that software will accurately read how employees feel.
As cameras, sensors and software programmed to recognize workers proliferate around offices, employers will have more detailed records of their workers’ habits and behavioral quirks, including when they come and go and how long they sit at their desks. Employers will be able to more easily identify people who aren’t performing well, especially if they’re doing physical tasks on camera, says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.
Whether the ID card will go extinct is unclear. Many workers may continue to wear badges because they help them recognize co-workers, says Mr. Ericson. “There’s a certain psychological benefit, kind of like donning a uniform,” he says.
Others say ID cards eventually will disappear when sensors and cameras analyze well-being and performance. “You will naturally evolve to something where you no longer need the badge,” Mr. White says.
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