Is tracking employees by GPS legal?

Written by pat kelley
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Is tracking employees by GPS legal?
(Paul Guzzo/Creatas/Getty Images)

Businesses may be able to save money and improve efficiency by tracking employees with a global positioning system (GPS) device. However, doing so raises important legal concerns. While there isn't a specific federal law that prohibits tracking employees with GPS devices on vehicles and certain types of cell phones, employers should take steps to limit their risk of being sued for violating privacy rights.

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Expectations of Privacy

One way to reduce liability for workplace privacy violations is to reduce the workers' expectation of privacy. This is similar to monitoring an employee's computer use. Employers can reduce their employees' expectation of privacy by notifying them that they will monitor the use of workplace computers. In much the same way, informing drivers that the company will monitor their whereabouts via GPS reduces the drivers' expectation of privacy.

Is tracking employees by GPS legal?
A signed privacy policy can deflect employee lawsuits. (papers to be signed image by Pix by Marti from Fotolia.com)

Limitations on Monitoring

Employers should have a good business reason to monitor the location of employees, especially in cases where an employee carries a GPS-enabled company cell phone at all times. According to the National Work Rights Institute, constantly monitoring employees violates their privacy: "At the end of the day, the employer will have enough pieces of the puzzle to create a fully fleshed out picture of the off-duty life of his employee. Extremely personal and private details of an employee's life are revealed, including their political activities, physical and mental health and relationships." Writing for "HR Daily Advisor," Steve Bruce notes that "In general, employers should limit such monitoring to the employee's work time and restrict follow-up questions to work."

Is tracking employees by GPS legal?
Employers should not track the whereabouts of off-duty employees. (cell phone image by Mat Hayward from Fotolia.com)

State Privacy Laws

Some employers may assume that if no federal law forbids GPS monitoring, they are free to engage in it. Others may believe that only people who are engaging in illicit activities would demand privacy. These are risky beliefs that could lead to a lawsuit. Labor attorney Louis D. Lorenzo writes, "Employers should be wary regarding various state privacy protections. Most states have laws restricting employers from taking action against employees because of their private off-duty pursuits. New York State, for example, has one of the most stringent laws concerning protection of legal off-duty activities, making it unlawful for employers to discriminate against individuals regarding terms or conditions of employment because of political activities, use of legal consumable products, recreational activities, and more."

Is tracking employees by GPS legal?
Privacy isn't just for criminals. (rainbow blind background image by Stephen Orsillo from Fotolia.com)

Benefits of Monitoring

Cynics might believe that the sole reason for monitoring employees with GPS is to ferret out lazy or unethical workers. In fact, GPS monitoring offers several other potential benefits. For instance, tracking vehicles may help managers improve the efficiency of shipping routes. It can also help to determine whether company drivers are speeding, or disprove claims that a certain driver caused an accident.

Is tracking employees by GPS legal?
Tracking trucks can improve shipping routes and shorten delivery times. (Cement trucks 3 image by Beverly from Fotolia.com)

History

The U.S. military developed global positioning technology in the 1970s. GPS relies on signals sent to satellites, which can triangulate the location of a person on earth. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission ordered cell phone manufacturers to install devices that would help emergency workers locate users who dialled 911. Some GPS-enabled phones can identify a user's location within 50 meters.

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