NLRB Rules Use of GPS Tracking to Investigate Employee Misconduct Not a Violation of Labor Laws

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Employment and Labor, Privacy

A recent National Labor Relations Board Shore Point Advisory Letter gives a bit of good news to employers who want to use modern monitoring technology to monitor employees that they suspect are breaking work rules. On November 2, 2015, the NLRB concluded that an alcoholic beverage distributor (Shore Point), did not violate labor laws by failing to negotiate with its employees’ union before installing a GPS tracking device on an employee’s company truck. Shore Point suspected that the employee was stealing time while on his work routes. Shore Point’s collective bargaining agreement contains rules against stealing time.

Shore Point hired a private investigator to follow the employee to collect evidence for disciplinary purposes, an established practice the union had not objected to in the past. The investigator placed a GPS tracking device on the employee’s truck to maintain and regain visual contact.  The GPS was only installed on the employee’s vehicle on the days when the investigator was following the employee, and was used as a backup method in case the investigator lost visual sight of the employee and his truck. Based on the investigator’s observations of the employee engaging in misconduct, Shore Point terminated the employee. The union filed a charge alleging that the employer unilaterally engaged in electronic surveillance without bargaining in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB determined that Shore Point did not have an obligation to bargain over the installation and use of the GPS device. Although the use of the device was a mandatory subject of bargaining, it did not amount to a material, substantial, and significant change in the terms and conditions of employment.  Shore Point had an existing practice of using a personal investigator to monitor employees suspected of misconduct. Using a GPS tracking device was just “a mechanical method to assist in the enforcement of an established policy,” and therefore was not a material, substantial, or significant change in policy.  The NLRB also noted that the GPS device only added to information that the private investigator had collected through personal observation, did not increase the likelihood of employee discipline, and did not provide an independent basis for termination.

At least two lessons can be learned from this case. First, when crafting employee work rules subject to bargaining, build in flexibility to allow for use of technological advances in enforcement methods. Second, disciplinary action against an employee should be supported with various types of evidence if possible. Just relying on evidence collected with a controversial or untested method is risky because if the use of the method is determined unlawful, the basis for the disciplinary action disappears.

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FTC Releases Staff Report and Recommendations on “Internet of Things”

Posted by on Jan 27, 2015 in Data Security, Privacy

The FTC released two guides on the privacy and security issues related to the Internet of Things.  The first is a staff report based on discussions in an FTC-hosted workshop on the subject held on November 19, 2013.  In addition to summarizing the workshop discussions, the report contains staff’s recommendations in the IoT space.  This prompted a FTC Commissioner (Joshua Wright) to dissent from the decision to issue the report.  In Commissioner Wright’s view, it is premature to publish staff recommendations in this area without further research, data, and analysis.  The dissenting statement can be found here.

The report discusses the benefits of IoT as well as three risks:

  1. enabling unauthorized access and misuse of personal information;
  2. facilitating attacks on other systems; and
  3. creating risks to personal safety

The report also discusses Fair Information Practice Principles including security, data minimization, notice, and choice.  Click here to read the full report.

Along with the staff report, the FTC issued a guide called “Careful Connections” that provides recommendations on building security into IoT applications.  Download the guide here.

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Oh Snap! Lessons From the Snapchat Settlement With the FTC

Posted by on May 8, 2014 in Advertising and Marketing, Data Security, Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just announced that Snapchat agreed to settle charges that it deceived consumers about how its popular mobile message app worked and what personal user data it collected.  (Read the FTC’s press release here). Part of Snapchat’s appeal was a feature enabling users to control how long a message could be seen by the recipient. After the designated time limit expires, the message is destroyed, much like the mission briefings in Mission Impossible. At least that’s what Snapchat told users. According to the FTC, Snapchat misled consumers because the app didn’t exactly work the way it said it did. The FTC’s complaint against Snapchat (read it here) included these allegations:

  • Recipients of a “snap” (a Snapchat message) could save the snap using tools outside of the app. Snapchat apparently stored video snaps in a location on the recipient’s mobile device outside of the app’s secure “sandbox.” This enabled recipients to find and save video snaps by connecting their mobile device to a computer and using simple file browsing tools. Another way to bypass the deletion feature was to use apps that connected to Snapchat’s API to download and save snaps.
  • Snapchat told users that if a message recipient took a snapshot of the snap, the sender would be notified. In fact, the screenshot detection mention could be bypassed.
  • Snapchat collected geolocation data of users when it said it would not.
  • Snapchat told users to enter their mobile number to find friends who also use the app, implying that the user’s mobile phone number was the only information it collected. Without the user’s knowledge, Snapchat also collected the names and phone numbers of all contacts in the address book on the user’s phone.

So what’s the significance of the settlement? Here are a few quick takeaways.

  • Descriptions of mobile apps in an app marketplace like iTunes App Store or Google Play are product descriptions that could be the basis for false advertising claims.
  • Including boilerplate language in an app description, terms of use, or privacy policy is a bad idea if you don’t know what it means or can’t verify its accuracy. Snapchat’s privacy policy told users that it “did not ask for, track, or access any location-specific information.” A lot of apps say that. The problem was that Snapchat integrated an analytics tracking service in the Android version of the app that did collect location information.
  • Take into account exploits and workarounds when drafting privacy policies and product descriptions. This includes software that uses the app’s API.
  • The FTC is getting more active in pursuing false advertising claims against mobile app makers. In December of last year, the FTC settled charges that the developer of the “Brightest Flashlight Free” app deceived consumers about how their geolocation information would be shared with advertising networks and other third parties. The FTC’s interest in suing companies that allow a data breach to occur is also a growing concern, especially after the New Jersey federal district court’s decision in FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., recognizing the FTC’s authority to prosecute cases where a company is alleged to have failed to maintain “reasonable and appropriate data security for consumers’ sensitive personal information.”
  • Information transmitted over the Internet is rarely, if ever, gone forever. Somehow, somewhere, electronic data can be retrieved.
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Hawaii Legislature 2014 — Summary of Proposed Computer Tech Legislation

Posted by on Jan 31, 2014 in Data Security, Employment and Labor, Privacy, Schools, Social Media, Trademark

It’s time to roundup the bills related to computer technology that the Hawai‘i legislature is considering in its 2014 regular session.  Click here for a chart summarizing the proposed legislation.  Here are the highlights:

Social Media and Internet Account Passwords:  Several bills to prohibit improper requests for access to personal social media accounts of employees and students were introduced in the 2013 session.  None of the them passed.  This year, HB2415 renews the effort to outlaw improper social media password requests.

Internet Sales Tax:  HB1651 would require online companies with arrangements with Hawaii merchants for referral of business  to collect use taxes on sales made in Hawaii.  This bill would affect online retailers like Amazon, who allows local merchants to sell their products through Amazon Marketplace.

Restrictive Covenants:  In an effort to encourage the development of technology business in Hawai‘i, a state with a relatively small geographic area, two bills (HB2617 and SB3126) would prohibit technology businesses from requiring employees to enter into noncompete agreements and restrictive covenants.  “Technology business” is defined as “a trade or business that relies on software development, information technology, or both.”

Cybersquatting: SB2958 would put the burden on a cybersquatter to prove that it did not register a domain name in bad faith or with intent to use it in an unlawful manner, provided that the person claiming cybersquatting can demonstrate the potential of immediate and irreparable harm through misuse of the domain name.

Cybersecurity Council: SB2474 would establish the Hawai‘i cybersecurity, economic, education, anfrastructure security council.

Mobile Devices: Three bills (HB1509HB1896, and SB2729) would make it a State offense to use a mobile electronic device while operating a motor vehicle.  Certain counties already have similar laws.

3D Printing: In response to the rising availability of 3D printers, HB1802 would make it a crime to create, possess, sell, trade, or give another person a firearm made with digital manufacturing technology.

Computer crimes: A series of bills criminalizes various kinds of computer activity, including unauthorized access to a computer or network and damage to a “critical infrastructure computer” (HB1640); theft of a computer (HB1644);  or personal electronic device for storing or retrieving personal information (HB2080); and revenge porn (SB2319).

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NLRB Approves Rule Shuttering Cameras in the Workplace

Posted by on Jan 27, 2014 in Employment and Labor, Privacy

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camrea

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”  Originally coined on the eponymous TV show, that catchphrase is becoming more of common refrain in the workplace.  Any employee with a smartphone can easily record an office conversation in secret.  But are such covert recordings legal?  And what control, if any, does management have over the making of such recordings?

The Law of Recording Face-to-Face Conversations

A majority of states (approximately 37) follow the one-person consent rule for recording face-to-face conversations.  This rule authorizes the recording of a conversation so as long as one person in the conversation consents.  The consenting party can also be the person recording the conversation.  Practically speaking, this means it is legal to record a conversation with another person without his or her knowledge.

Most other states require the consent of all participants in the conversation.  Covert recording of face-to-face conversations would not be permitted in states that follow the all-party consent rule.

Workplace Bans on Covert Recordings

Even if covert recordings are legal, management may regulate the practice if done so consistently with the right of employees to engage in concerted activity, which is protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  A recent National Labor Relations Board decision illustrates this.  Whole Foods Market, Inc., Case No. 01-CA-096965 (Oct. 30, 2013).  The case involved a challenge to a company policy that banned employees from recording conversations without prior management approval.  The company’s stated purpose for the policy was “to eliminate a chilling effect to the expression of views that may exist when one person is concerned that his or her conversation with another is being secretly recorded.”

The administrative law judge (ALJ) in the case upheld the policy.  The ALJ noted that there is no protected right to record conversations in the workplace, but even if there were such a right, management may regulate the exercise of that right.  It was not adopted in response to union activity, and it was clearly tied to the company’s core value of fostering open and honest dialogue about company matters.  The ALJ disagreed that the policy could reasonably be interpreted as a restriction on using social media to communicate and share information about work conditions through video recordings made at the workplace.  The policy regulated a means of communication as opposed to the protected activity itself.  It also did not prohibit employees from making recordings during non-work time.  The policy therefore did not violate Section 7 rights.


The Whole Foods Market decision suggests questions that management should consider when drafting a work rule against covert recordings to ensure that the rule does not violate the NLRA:

  • Is the rule clearly linked to a purpose besides preventing employees from engaging in Section 7 activity?
  • Does the rule leave open alternative channels for employees to communicate about Section 7 activity?
  • Does the rule allow employees to make recordings during non-work hours?

A ban on covert recordings is more likely to withstand a legal challenge if management can answer “yes” to each of these questions.

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