In response to concerns about employee attendance and building
security, some employers have chosen to implement biometric
attendance systems in the workplace. These systems allow an
employer to monitor employees' work hours by measuring
biological characteristics like fingerprints, handprints or facial
features and associating this measurement with an identified
individual. As biometric systems record personal information about
identifiable individuals, their use by employers is subject to the
requirements of privacy legislation.
The interplay between biometric attendance systems and employee
privacy has been addressed by the Office of the Information and
Privacy Commissioner of Alberta (OIPC) on two occasions:
Investigation Report P2008-IR-005 and Investigation Report
F2008-IR-001. In both cases, the employer implemented a biometric
attendance system in order to more accurately record attendance and
reduce instances of "buddy punching", a practice where
one employee punches the time card of another employee who is late
or absent. The systems did not store images of an employee's
thumb or hand print, but instead converted measurements of an
employee's hand or thumb into a unique numerical
The Commissioner concluded in both cases that the collection of
personal employee information was reasonable. Despite this finding,
both employers were found to have breached their obligation under
privacy legislation to properly notify employees of the information
being collected and the manner in which collected information would
The OIPC Investigation Reports are instructive, as they raise a
number of important takeaway points for employers who are
considering a move from the traditional timecard to a more high
Employers who implement such systems in the workplace must take
care to ensure that employees understand what information is being
collected, how it is being collected and how the employer will use
the information. This may include the preparation of a written
In both investigation reports, the Commissioner noted that the
numerical identifiers generated by the biometric system could not
be reverse engineered in order to reconstruct an image of the
employee's hand or thumbprint. It was also noted that the
collected information was transmitted and stored in encrypted form.
In light of concerns about unauthorized access to or misuse of
personal information, the level of security provided by an
attendance system will be important if the legality of the system
The Commissioner also noted in both reports that other methods
of tracking attendance had been found to be ineffective. Employers
who wish to use biometric systems in the workplace should therefore
be able to articulate how the proposed system is needed to remedy a
specific problem, such as buddy-punching, in light of any available
methods which are less invasive.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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