Watchdog warning | 'Neurotech' could be used to track workers' brain data, report says

'Neurotech' could be used to track workers' brain data, report says

Employers could adopt new neurotechnology to monitor workers’ attention and focus in the workplace and identify ‘desirable patterns of behaviour’ among job candidates, a watchdog has said.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has released a report stating that HR departments may soon have their hands full with the task of processing ‘neurodata’ - a task which will be fraught with legal issues such as GDPR, and ethical concerns such as power imbalances in the employer-employee relationship.

And while the report insisted that ‘mind-reading’ and other such dystopian technologies remained ‘largely theoretical’ for the time being, the ICO did warn of the risk that tracking employees’ mental bandwidth could “embed systemic bias” into workplace processes, particularly discriminating against those who are neurodivergent.

In particular, growing use of neurodata and neurotech could present particular ethical and legal concerns in the recruitment sector, said the ICO.

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There isn’t an agreed definition of neurodata, but a recent UNESCO International Bioethics Committee Report on Neurotechnology states that neurodata is “data relating to the functioning or structure of the human brain of an identified or identifiable individual that includes unique information about their physiology, health, or mental states”.

Furthermore, the ICO defines it as “first order data gathered directly from a person’s neural systems (inclusive of both the brain and the nervous systems) and second order inferences based directly upon this data”.

The ICO outlined several key ways in which employees’ neuro functions could be monitored:

Workplace safety

“The employment sector is likely to make increasing use of non-invasive neurotechnology to measure, record and process a variety of personal information”, the report said.

“While employee monitoring is already a contentious area of processing, EEG systems (a form of brain scanning headset) may be integrated as part of a health and safety or risk management scheme. This could see helmets or safety equipment that measure the attention and focus of an employee rolled out in high risk environments. For example, around heavy machinery or a large vehicle, especially combined with long working hours.”

Workplace wellness

The ICO research also indicated that employee monitoring, with the stated purpose of enhancing and enabling workplace wellness within the office environment, is already being explored.

Wearable neurotechnologies are being worn by employees to help them and their employers have greater awareness of employee engagement and stress.

However, biometric based monitoring technologies, such as gaze and gait tracking, may be perceived as a cheaper, more accurate and easier-to-deploy alternative, the report found.

Employee hiring

Finally, workplaces could see increased use of neurodata recording techniques as part of the recruitment process, according to the ICO, which could aid organisations who want to identify people who fit desirable patterns of behaviour or perceived traits, like executive function.

Looking for more

But the ICO also warned that workplace use of neurotechnology presents “numerous risks and challenges for data protection.”

The report said: “Conclusions drawn from information may be based in highly contested definitions and scientific analysis of traits, as we explore in the below section on regulatory issues.

“They may embed systemic bias in the processing, discriminating against those who are neurodivergent. Finding an appropriate basis for processing is likely to be complex and organisation will need to consider fairness, transparency and data retention.”

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