Employee Privacy and Social Security Numbers

January 23rd, 2019 by Emily Schifter at Troutman Sanders


Workplace Privacy

Do you monitor your employees using technology?  Would you consider making them wear wristbands or other devices capturing their every move?

This spring, news spread that Amazon had been granted two patents for a new wristband that appeared to be designed to do just that for its warehouse and fulfillment staff.  The patents indicated that the wristbands would track workers’ hand movements as orders were filled and provide “haptic” feedback through vibrations to guide workers to the correct items and shelves.  Although the company later released a statement indicating that the devices were intended only to be used as a hands-free, more efficient version of the handheld scanning devices commonly used by warehouse staff, the technology raised concerns among commentators that information gleaned from the devices would instead be used to monitor workers’ every move and inefficiency – even bathroom breaks.  Amazon isn’t alone.  A small technology company in Wisconsin, for instance, recently offered employees an opportunity to have microchips implanted under their skin as a replacement for RFID badge swipes at protected doorways and in the company cafeteria—and the majority of employees unhesitatingly agreed.

The above examples may seem far-fetched in the average workplace, but employers have always sought to monitor and improve their employees’ productivity, work habits, and communications.  Today, it’s not uncommon for employers to surveil their employees through technology in a variety of ways as a matter of course, including by using GPS tracking on employer-owned vehicles, recording telephone conversations with customers, scanning emails sent from employer-owned devices, or reviewing job applicants’ social media profiles.  But is it always a good idea?

Company Grounds

Generally, employees have little expectation of privacy while on company grounds or using company equipment, including company computers or vehicles, so often, monitoring (with proper notice, as required) is not especially problematic.  Plus, technology has great benefits for employers, including in improving productivity and efficiency.  But it’s worth a few moments to consider how technology’s role in society and growing presence in the workplace implicates employee privacy concerns, and what the consequences can be for going too far.

So that you are prepared before the next big tech development hits your office, here are a few things to consider when weighing how your company should approach and balance surveillance and employee privacy concerns:

  • Consider the types of information and technology you intend to use. Different requirements may be applicable to certain types of information (social media sites versus credit reports from background checks, for example), and some states and local governments have begun proposing and passing legislation affecting surveillance of private electronic information that may apply, in some cases, to private employers.
  • Think about the implications of having and storing electronic data about your workers. What happens (and what are the practical and legal risks) if this data is accessed without authorization (and how should you respond if it is), and will you have a policy for responding to third-party requests for this type of information?
  • Finally, stay faithful to your workplace’s culture. While some monitoring can be a great tool to increase efficiency, too much (especially without prior notice and proper explanations) can foster distrust among employees.

This is a constantly evolving area of the law, and best practices can and should be tailored to your individual workplace. For more information and tips on recent legal developments in this area, reach out to your favorite Troutman Sanders employment attorney.

This blog was written by Emily Schifter at Troutman Sanders, who contributes to our Georgia Human Resources Manual. You can find the original article and their HR Law Matters blog on their website.  



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