Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Backlog: Big law firm uses fingerprint-scanning to track employees

As reported by Niamh Scallan of The Toronto Star, November 1, 2012:

The days of sneaking out for three-hour lunch breaks will soon be over at a Bay Street law firm after it decided to install fingerprint-scanning technology to monitor its employees’ whereabouts.

Last month, McCague Borlack LLP announced plans for a revamped security system that will require staff (except lawyers who spend much of their time with clients) to clock in and out of the office with a finger swipe, keeping track of morning late-comers or those who try to jump-start their weekends by slipping out early on a Friday.

“Some people were abusing the system,” said founding partner Howard Borlack, 58. “We had people taking two to three hours for lunch and we had no way of knowing. . . . Some people were complaining.”

Other Toronto firms use security passes and honour systems to keep track of time worked. McCague Borlack, which focuses mostly on insurance law and employs about 200 people, has gone a step further with a system that not only provides office access via fingerprint, but also records employees as they enter and leave.

Come mid-November, when the system is expected to go live, the office will be equipped with finger-scanning machines supplied by Utah-based Qqest, Inc. that will keep a rolling record of the time spent in the office.

It’s mostly about improved building security, said Borlack, a way to keep track of people coming in and out of the office and streamlining administrative tasks. But with concern within the firm that some people are working less than 40 hours a week, the monitoring feature is “a huge bonus.”

“I know we have people who probably work less than 35 hours a week and if I listen to all the griping about certain people, I’m sure it’s well less than that,” Borlack said.

A boon for productivity-conscious managers, the plan has drawn outrage among a group of bloggers who identify themselves as McCague Borlack secretaries.

On their “Finger Campaign” website, the group has accused the firm of singling out secretaries and copy-room staff (by exempting some lawyers from the program), and called the system an “insult to our human dignity” that has had a “very chilling effect on the secretaries’ psyche.”

“The indignant fingerprinting program does not seek to address any security concerns at all,” one post read. “It’s for the ‘mark ’em and track ’em’ purpose exclusively.”

Borlack admitted he “knew it would be uncomfortable” for some employees, but said he was careful to ensure the fingerprint technology would not violate privacy issues. He denounced the “Finger Campaign” as false, noting the new measure was intended mostly for security purposes and most staff seemed to be on board.

Rosa DeFrenza, a receptionist at the firm for five years, said she had not yet seen the “Finger Campaign” website, but said she thought the program could help to standardize work hours among her colleagues.

She added that diligent workers, herself included, had no reason to be concerned about the program. “No one should be working more than anyone else, no one should be working less than anyone else,” DeFrenza said.

But where to draw the line?

Carleton University law professor Michael MacNeil, who specializes in legal issues surrounding privacy and surveillance, said the fingerprinting system is just one example of the way workplaces are using technology to monitor and maximize productivity.

But legislation has lagged behind the trend, he said, leaving more questions than answers over what constitutes an invasion of privacy in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of it going on,” he said. “It’s an area where the law is underdeveloped.”
If a religious group used methods such as those described above, it would be considered evidence of the group's cultic character. Indeed, that comparison has already been made. Mary Otvos, a young woman who was quitting the practice of law after 10 years wrote an article titled Why I'm Leaving Law, which appeared on pages 12-17 of the February 1992 issue of Canadian Lawyer. Unfortunately, the magazine's online archives don't go back that far, and that article doesn't seem to be available online. One of the observations that Ms. Otvos made was that big law firms are like religious cults in their efforts to control their people. That article appeared 20 years before McCague Borlack began using fingerprint technology to monitor their employees' whereabouts; the use of surveillance technology has enabled the cult leaders to be even more controlling.

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