The next time you try to disguise an extended lunch break as a business meeting, your boss might know about it, thanks to a new Google Maps app that lets your employer track your every move.
The new application, called Google Maps Coordinate, will allow businesses to track the locations of their employees by having each one download the app to their Android-powered smartphones. At a cost of $15 per user, the program will relay the user’s location back to his employer as often as every five seconds.
The app’s primary purpose is to coordinate mobile workers who regularly perform tasks outside the office. In a blog post, Google offers the example of an electric company being able to easily send the nearest electrician to repair a downed power line. Employees out in the field have the ability to share their location and record data in categories controlled by the employer, while bosses back in the office can view past location data to analyze worker efficiency.
Beta testing for the product included businesses across a wide spectrum of industries, from a telecommunications firm to a local pizza shop, according to a Google spokesman.
The app’s sophisticated tracking abilities, which work both inside and outside buildings, might leave some workers wary of having their every movement watched by the boss.
“Employers may be tempted, because technology can enable this level of tracking, but the cost to workplace privacy would be serious,” said Lillie Coney, the associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington. “The key issue is the redefinition of where work and personal life begins and ends.”
A Google spokesman said the purpose of the app was to increase office efficiency, not to keep unnecessary tabs on employees. The app has to be launched by the employee to funcion, so it won’t run secretly in the background on a user’s phone. Users can turn the app off at any time or set a time for it to shut off daily so they don’t accidentally get tracked all the way home. There’s also an invisible mode that takes users off the grid, but the boss will know when an employee has gone invisible.
Google isn’t exactly charting new ground here. There is already an entire market built around GPS tracking and field force automation in the workplace. Businesses use GPS technology to track the locations of workers in the trucking and package delivery sectors on a regular basis. But tying this technology to a ubiquitous program like Google Maps marks a leap into the mainstream for the concept of employee surveillance.
Google has faced privacy concerns in the past. It got caught gathering users’ personal data over Wi-Fi networks with Street View in 2010, and the United Kingdom recently reopened an investigation into that affair. But a spokesman confirmed that data transferred through Google Maps Coordinate will be encrypted and not available to advertisers. “We put a lot of thought into how to protect both the business at a high level as well as the individual,” she said.
Businesses will be trained by Google on the proper use of the app. But will they always play by the rules? Employers’ attempts to track employees off hours–on an alleged sick day, for instance–could open a whole new legal can of worms. “The issue is technology and innovation outpacing policy making to determine the rights and obligations related to tracking employees when off-work,” Coney said. “Litigation on an issue like this could be on where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy or not.”
The power of smartphones has put a potential tracking device in every citizen’s pocket. For now, with the legality of digital privacy ever changing, businesses are free to chose how to apply these technologies.