Workers fighting compulsory facial recognition with Big Brother Watch – and winning

Big Brother Watch Team / December 22, 2020

My name is John* and I work as a cleaner. I’d like to tell you about how I fought for workers’ rights not to have to use compulsory facial recognition to clock in and out of work.

Seven of us cleaners, formerly employed by the council at a school, were transferred to an outsourcing company to continue to work as cleaners at the school.

This company gave us a new contract to sign. This contract explained the “clocking in system”, which is via an app, and said by signing the contract we were giving consent to the use of facial recognition. It even said that, if we didn’t have our phones, data and use the facial recognition to log in, we wouldn’t be paid for our work.

In my gut, I did not like the feeling of coercion about this. It felt controlling and dehumanising. It was the icing on the cake of 2020. I felt severely stressed from the day I saw the new contract and started sleeping poorly.

It wasn’t just me. My colleagues were affronted at having to use their own phone, data and facial recognition for work. All of us instinctively felt that it was dehumanising to be forced to clock in this way.

None of us signed the contract.

Unsure of the law or my rights, I emailed Big Brother Watch, whose Twitter account I had seen. The director Silkie Carlo got back to me really promptly. It was very affirming to have my concerns taken seriously, after the company and the school had been unresponsive to cleaners’ voiced concerns.

Full of positive energy about challenging the company, Silkie contacted James Farrar from Worker Info Exchange, who is involved in defending the data rights of app drivers (eg. Uber). He seemed like a great person to consult. (I have since read about the trend of “Uberisation” of work, where employees are made to use apps that treat them as self-employed. I suspect that the company I’m employed by is pushing us towards being Uber-style cleaners too.)

Feeling wound up, I sent a letter of protest about facial recognition to the company and the school. At this point, I was signed off sick with stress by my doctor. To make matters worse, I then received a message from my manager asking me to hand in my notice. James Farrar vehemently advised me not to comply with this – and I did not.

Big Brother Watch sent a letter to the company and the school Headteacher, entitled “Request to desist compulsory facial recognition”. It cited the rights of cleaners to have privacy (Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights), and the obligations the company has when it proposes to use facial recognition. Such sensitive biometric data invokes a high level of protection under the General Data Protection Act 2018. These obligations include a Data Protection Impact Assessment to ensure any impact on our privacy is necessary and proportionate; and ensuring that cleaners’ consent for facial recognition is freely given and withdrawable without penalisation. This was not the case for me, as “consent” for facial recognition was written into our contract. The letter also asked (on James’ advice) whether the company had registered itself as a Data Controller with the ICO (they probably haven’t), and to see the data sharing agreement between the company and the app provider Chronicle Computing Ltd (there probably isn’t one).

Big Brother Watch’s letter drew out the uncomfortable reality, that the company had probably not fulfilled any of their data protection obligations before trying to push this app onto the cleaners.

Just before Christmas, my manager admitted they “crossed a line” by trying to impose facial recognition on the cleaners. The app will now not be required for us.

I’m still off sick now but will return in January because I like my colleagues and the work is satisfying. Also, because we’re not going to have the facial recognition app!

My plan is to be cheerful and do a good job, even if it’s awkward with the managers.

Thanks Big Brother Watch for standing up for privacy and human dignity.

*Names changed to protect anonymity

If you need help or advice with facial recognition or surveillance at work, you can email us here.