Civil Liberties

Biometrics at Pizza Hut and KFC? How Face Recognition and Digital Fingerprinting Are Creeping Into the U.S. Workplace

Biometric technology is being used to more closely track low-wage workers, already desperate in a bad economy.

All summer, Lathem Corp. product marketing manager Tony Burks has been on tour, pitching the biometric company's line of face-scanning time clocks at trade shows around the country. In his presentations Burks moves toward the small device and then backs away, showing how FaceIN uses some of the latest advances in face recognition technology to assess his identity from up to three feet away.  

FaceIN uses two cameras to map a worker's face, converting the width of their cheekbones, depth of their eye sockets, nose shape, and other unique facial features into an ID code. Every day after that, workers punch in by standing in front of a machine that recognizes them after a two-second face scan. Unlike the old-fashioned electronic password, FaceIN promises to tightly monitor when workers come and go, permanently banishing "buddy punching" from the workplace -- the time-honored practice of covering for a co-worker who may be running a few minutes late.

Identical twins can't con it, because, as Burks tells AlterNet over the phone, the two cameras that survey the face capture even slight variations in cheek plumpness and eyelid droop. As workers age, their FaceIN avatar ages with them. Changes to the face brought on by weight gain and weight loss are also clocked. "Let's say you gained 15 pounds next month," Burks says, "It would still recognize you."

Face-scanning time clocks were only introduced in the US in 2010, by companies like Lathem and Compumatic Time Recorders Inc, which outdoes Lathem by offering a time-clock that recognizes workers in the dark. But biometrics -- the science of determining identity through unique physiological features like fingerprints or the pattern of veins -- have been creeping into the American workplace for years. Fingerprint readers, retinal scans, and even machines that use palm pressure to ascertain identity are in use in workplaces ranging from the US Senate to hospitals to construction sites and restaurants.

As you can imagine, the applications vary depending on the work. Namely, the higher up you go on the income ladder, the more likely it is that biometrics are used to aid security or even protect privacy, like keeping hospital records safe. 

In low-wage jobs, advances in biometrics are starting to manifest in products that monitor and control employee behavior; devices meant to scare workers out leaving early to pick up the kids, running a few minutes late, or giving friends or family the occasional discount.

So far, FaceIN has made it into about 3,000 locations around the country, estimates Burks. A more pervasive biometric device is Digital Persona's U.are.U fingerprint reader, designed to integrate with point-of-sale (POS) systems (computerized cash registers). Cashiers, cooks and other service workers must sign in and out of work by pressing their fingerprints into the machine.

Like FaceIN, U.are.U is supposed to save companies money by tracking their low-wage employees more efficiently than passwords or keys. Since it's linked up to the register, it also prevents cashiers from hooking their friends up with unauthorized discounts. As a report on Digital Persona's website puts it, the device protects companies from such worker infractions as "...tardy arrivals, 'buddy punching,' 'lollygagging,' extended breaks, and early departures. Inventory shrink: unauthorized discounts and returns, and fraudulent gift card transactions."

A Digital Persona sales rep says U.are.U has taken off in the past few years, with some POS dealers refusing to move machines that aren't compatible with the technology.

Early this month Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which runs franchises of the buffet restaurants Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, announced it had installed U.are.U at 122 locations across 15 states.

KFC franchise owners enlisted in the battle against "lollygagging,"just last week,with two companies boasting adoption of the technology in the Midwest and Southeast.

"With the DigitalPersona fingerprint solution, we have been able to track each manager's and employee's actions more closely, and have recognized a near-immediate reduction in food costs," says the director of operations of West Quality Food service (which owns KFC stores) in a Digital Persona press release.

KFC, Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes join franchise owners of Pizza Huts and Popeyes in publicizing their use of the technology. A Digital Persona rep also says U.are.U is used in Long John Silvers and Wendy's locations. Hooters' corporate management was so impressed after seeing U.are.U in action at a few restaurants it has made it corporate policy to equip Hooters across the land with the machines, the Digital Persona rep told AlterNet.

Other companies including a popular fast food chain, an omnipresent pharmacy, and an upscale furniture store, are keeping quiet about their use of U.are.U in some of their stores, AlterNet has learned.

Their caution seems warranted. Biometrics is a staple of sci-fi dystopias for a reason, and recent, more public debuts of the technology have not gone well. Earlier this summer Facebook faced massive backlash after expanding its face recognition tagging software. The German government even threatened tosue the site for violating German privacy laws, and the Connecticut attorney general scolded Facebook for making the feature default rather than letting users opt-in.

Representatives for the two companies maintain that FaceIN and U.are.U don't store biometric data in a format that can be used beyond authentication at their locations. ("This isn't Big Brother watching you," Burks jokes defensively -- clearly, concerns about Big Brother have been deemed an obstacle in the devices' wide acceptance.) But the spread of biometrics in the low-wage workplace still raises discomfiting questions, like, why use a technology meant for criminals and terrorists to scare a KFC cashier from taking two minutes extra on their break?

"Crude methods of control many times don't get to the objective and are often counterproductive," Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, tells AlterNet. Nussbaum organized clerical workers in the 1980s, right around the time the spread of computers in the office offered corporations unprecedented opportunities for tracking employees.

Programs aimed at wringing more work from clerical staff ranged from the goofy to creepy to obscene; one let managers send workers subliminal inspirational messages. Another method of control, inflicted on secretaries, airline reservationists, and other clerical workers, involved programs that could record all computer activity, including key strokes by the second. Airline reservationists got productivity reports at the end of the day, admonishing them for slowing their pace at 11:13 that morning. One worker described it to Nussbaum as "having my manager in my lap."

"What is the problem an employer is trying to solve? Is being three minutes late a problem? What are better ways to solve that?" Nussbaum asks.

The American low-wage workplace is not exactly a paragon of mutual trust and autonomy. There are, after all, managers to oversee employee activity and in many fast food joints surveillance cameras effectively communicate the point that workers can be watched at all times.

Nussbaum points out that most supervisors would probably notice if half of their crew stopped showing up but kept getting paid. The far more exacting measurement of employee arrivals and departures offered up by the biometric clock appears designed to capture what a human manager might miss.

An American Payroll Association study cited in Digital Persona promotional materials estimates that "time theft" accounts for between 1.5 to 5 percent of payroll costs. But what about the longer-term economic impact of worker burnout? Nussbaum has found that workers subjected to increasing levels of surveillance can suffer physical and psychological problems.

Of course, the emotional and physical health of their lowest-paid workers has never been top corporate priority. It just doesn't have to be, since essentially every big economic trend over the past 50 years has screwed low-wage workers while ensuring employers have a large supply of disposable labor.

Right now is a particularly nasty time to be a member of America's working poor. Unemployment rates among high-school graduates hover at around 10 percent -- in comparison, 4.4 percent of college graduates are out of work. This is despite the fact that what new jobs are being spit up by the anemic economy are primarily low-wage, according to a February report by the National Employment Law Projectwhich found 49 percent of job growth over the year took place in industries like retail.

Earlier this year McDonald's helped illustrate those grim stats, announcing it had gotten 1 million applications for 62,000 positions.

That's the economic reality that makes low-wage workers more vulnerable than ever. There are many, many people desperate to take their place.

Writing for Mother Jones, journalist Mac McClelland described a day in the "warehouse of soul-crushing sadness," an unnamed facility where workers box the junk people order online. In the few hours McClelland spends there, she sees one guy get fired for taking too many breaks and another lose his job because he got caught talking to another employee during his shift. The supervisor she talks to points out that there are hundreds of people waiting on jobs at the warehouse -- a bottom line that does not encourage second chances.

The Morning Callran a story about an Amazon shipping warehouse where managers, undeterred by fainting employees, let temperatures soar into the 100s. According to reporter Spencer Soper:

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

In this economic environment, having a buddy punch you into work when you're late because the public transportation you take to work broke down, may be a matter of survival.

As privacy expert Lew Maltby tells AlterNet, it's also dangerous to accept increasing uses of the technology without public discussion about its pitfalls. The more biometrics become entrenched in our digital and physical lives, the more likely the technology is to appear perfectly natural. 

Facebook has become the most public symbol of privacy corrosion, so the site's use of face recognition technology sparked the most outrage. But biometric technology is starting to appear in many realms. A few weeks ago AlterNet compiled a list of unexpected places where face recognition technology can be found besides Facebook. These included ads in Vegas and in the marketing strategies of companies like Adidas and Kraft, as the Los Angeles Times reported. There's about a 50/50 chance your DMV uses face recognition to run photographs through a database, according to an estimate by the EFF's Lee Tien. Police in departments around the country are being equipped with MORIS, a mobile device that contains face recognition, iris scanning and digital fingerprints. 

One of the things that helps prevent abuses of the technology is the visceral unease it engenders, which often leads to backlash when it's too crudely imposed. Getting young people accustomed to being fingerprinted just to go to work, though, can go a long way toward making the technology seem more and more natural, so that it also seems perfectly normal to give your fingerprint to the police when you don't have to, or be OK with a corporation, or strangers on the street, knowing who you are from a snapshot of your face.