Every morning Dennis Colson, a surveyor at New York City's Department of Design and Construction, begins his work day by placing his hand on a scanner to log his time and attendance at the office.
The use of hand geometry and other biometric data, like facial and iris recognition, is not new — the University of Georgia pioneered the use of hand geometry when it installed scanners in its student dining hall in 1974.
But the planned roll-out of hand geometry scanners in all New York City government agencies has sparked union cries of "geoslavery" and assertions that technology developed for security will be used to track, label and control workforces.
"It's frustrating, it's kind of an insult," Colson, 53, told Reuters. "They are talking about going to voice and retina scanners and that's an invasion of privacy in that they can track you wherever you go."
License to track?
Jon Forster, of the The Civil Service Technical Guild, which represents Department of Design and Construction workers, said the biometric systems gave the city a license to obtain personal, uniquely identifiable data to track workers.
"It's really a matter of this kind of technology having far outstripped any legislation or even case law in the United States in terms of what are the restrictions," Guild Vice President Jon Forster told Reuters.
"On the one hand I think people might all agree that if you put a GPS system in ambulances then that's a good thing. On the other hand you have an employer in Ohio who has demanded that two of his employees have chips implanted in their bodies."
"If these are the extremes, the question is where does the line get drawn?" he said.
"The unions' arguments keep changing, but the tracking workers throughout the day is not true. It's just for clicking in and out," said Stu Loeser, spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, adding that there were no plans to install voice recognition or iris scanners.
Is hand geometry the real problem?
Biometrics expert Jim Wayman, who consults for the U.S., British and Australia governments, said mobile phones and credit cards were the "No. 1 enemies" for workers worried about geoslavery, not biometrics.
"There may be large forces at work in western society wishing to enslave the workforce. I want to acknowledge that fear. But hand geometry is not part of this," Wayman, who has studied biometrics for more than two decades, told Reuters.
He said monitoring computer and phone usage were the "tools by which an employer would seek to enslave the workforce — it would not be done through biometrics."
Monitoring on the rise
In 2004, U.S. employers reportedly spent $9 billion on monitoring devices for the workplace, while a 2005 survey by American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute found 76 percent of companies monitor workers Web site use.
The survey of 526 U.S. companies also showed 36 percent of employers track computer content, keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard, while half store and review employees' computer files and 55 percent retain and review e-mail messages.
Only 5 percent used GPS in phones and 8 percent used GPS in company vehicles, while fingerprint scanning only accounted for 5 percent, facial recognition 2 percent and iris scans 0.5 percent.
"Most people in the industry are surprised that biometrics devices have not become more widespread already," Wayman said.
"There is a 40 year history of implementation of biometric devices, but use of these devices has never become widely popular and one of the reasons is they are thoroughly expensive to use and it's not clear the cost savings in their use."