Company Health Tracking Programs Raise Privacy Concerns for Employees
In the quest for ever-increasing output, many companies have begun implementing health and wellness initiatives to ensure that their employees remain healthy, happy, and (most importantly) productive. However, a Portland company at the forefront of the quantified self movement – which uses statistical data about a person’s characteristics and activities in order to better understand the person’s performance and general well-being – has begun a program that, if implemented widely at other companies, could raise serious privacy and employment law concerns.
Health Tracking Program for Employees at a Portland Company
An article in the British edition of Wired magazine discusses the new initiative at Citizen, a mobile technology design company based in Portland, where employees upload personal data about such things as their exercise habits, what they eat, and how much they sleep. The ultimate goal of this project is to understand the correlations between health, happiness, and productivity among Citizen’s employees and to help the employees learn how to improve their work by improving their habits.
The Citizen Evolutionary Process Organism (or C3PO) collects information from personal activity trackers that trace individuals’ exercise habits (FitBit and RunKeeper), time spent working on various projects (Team Work PM and RescueTime), and even their moods and the songs they listen to (Happiily and Sonos). Citizen says that the purpose of gathering all this information in order to understand what works best for both the company and its employees, in terms of satisfaction and productivity.
Health Tracking Systems Raise Serious Privacy Concerns
In its current iteration, C3PO contains both some safeguards and some risks to its employees. It is not a mandatory program, and in fact only eight out of Citizen’s 80 employees are participating. Furthermore, the company can only access individual employees’ data to the extent that the employees permit, and the employees retain control of the data after they leave the company. However, given how recently Citizen’s program has started, there is every possibility that these structural safeguards might change, either within the company or if other companies adopt similar systems. In any case, even with these safeguards, the eight employees participating in C3PO are well aware that they are waiving their privacy rights in order to help the company figure out its tracking system.
Employees at companies that may adopt similar measures must be aware of the important privacy concerns that such health and wellness tracking systems will engender. Many companies hire employees on an at-will basis, which means that employees can leave for any reason and employers can fire employees for any reason that is not prohibited. Generally, employers cannot discriminate against their employees on the basis of race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, genetic information, or age (if the employee is 40 or older).
In addition, health information is generally only legally protected within the healthcare system, meaning that insurance companies or doctors and nurses and others involved in medical treatment are forbidden from disclosing a person’s health situation without their permission. Those protections do not yet extend to situations like C3PO, so Citizen or companies considering similar programs would not necessarily be legally forbidden from sharing the health information in their possession. It is also unclear in most of the cases who would “own” the health information. Privacy rights advocates suggest that employees make sure that their companies have very strong privacy policies that would prevent the company from making any sort of human resource decisions based on the health data that they collect through these programs.
It will be interesting to see how Citizen’s pilot program develops at the company, and if it catches on with other companies in the area. Either way, if you have any concerns about your company’s use of your private information, or if you feel that your company has improperly discriminated against you, please contact a lawyer at our firm to help you understand your rights.