When Your Boss Is Tracking Your Brain | Kanebridge News
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When Your Boss Is Tracking Your Brain

Bioethicist Nita Farahany says privacy law hasn’t kept up with science as employers increasingly use neurotechnology in the workplace

Thu, Feb 16, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 4 min

Employers can track workers’ emails, computer keystrokes and calls. What happens when they routinely start tracking employees’ brains?

Nita Farahany, 46, has been studying the possibility for years. A professor of law and philosophy at Duke University School of Law, Dr. Farahany has long been intrigued by potential legal challenges posed by devices in the workplace that measure electrical activity in the brain.

Over the years, these electroencephalogram, or EEG, devices, along with the software and algorithms that power them, have gotten better at tracking brain-wave signals and decoding people’s emotions and cognitive skills. Some employers use the devices to monitor employees’ fatigue and offer brain-wave tracking as part of wellness programs designed to decrease stress and anxiety, Dr. Farahany says.

But the law hasn’t kept up with the science, she says. “There is no existing set of legal rights that protect us from employers scanning the brain or hacking the brain.”

Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University School of Law, argues the workplace will be a crucial arena in the fight for the future of mental privacy. PHOTO: ANGELA OWENS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Dr. Farahany’s interest in the issue stems in part from her childhood. Her parents both came to the U.S. from Iran, her father moving in 1969 for a medical residency and her mother arriving a year later. They had planned to return to Iran in 1979 but decided against it because of the political unrest. After the Shah of Iran’s ouster, her mother’s brother, who had served in the military, was arrested. Dr. Farahany’s family often discussed politics, including the way surveillance technology can be misused by governments.

In her book coming out in March, “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology,” Dr. Farahany argues the workplace will be a crucial arena in the fight for the future of mental privacy. She spoke with The Wall Street Journal about how employers are increasingly gathering workers’ brain data and the need for limits on how the information is used.

How are employers already tracking our brains?

The first example that I came across was a few years ago. Train drivers in China on the Beijing-Shanghai [high-speed rail] line are required to wear caps that have electrodes embedded in order to track their brain activity to see if they are focused or fatigued. There are even reports of tracking of the emotion levels of factory workers. The workers can be sent home if emotional levels signal they could be disruptive on the factory floor. I thought, I’m glad that isn’t happening in the U.S. But it turns out that it is happening in the U.S. Some companies have started to look into technology that could allow them to track fatigue levels and also attention and focus.

There are some beneficial uses. Brain-wave activity monitors can be used by employees. As your mind starts to wander, it can give you an alert and tell you, “Hey, it is time for a brain break.”

Companies are also using it to track wellness and health. Wellness programs don’t fall under the same kinds of protections that employees have from misuse of health data. The data could track everything from a person’s cognitive decline over time to a lot of other brain metrics, through brain-training games and headsets that measure brain-wave activity.

Can you see employers gathering the data through wellness programs and then sharing a report every quarter?

They could. They could evaluate it. They could use it for managerial purposes. They can make decisions about who is going to be very expensive to continue to employ over time, whose brain is slowing and less likely to be as effective over time. There really is no check on how they use that data right now.

In many instances, we voluntarily give up this information. And in other instances, we don’t have a choice, it is part of the process of applying for a job. What troubles you?

People may not recognise how much information you can decode already from a person’s brain. There are a lot of things that can be learned about the individual, like whether they suffer from cognitive decline or whether they have early stages of glioblastoma, a brain tumour—even their cognitive preferences.

I do worry people are unwittingly giving up [information] without realising the full implications. That is true for privacy in general, but we ought to have a special place we think about when it comes to the brain. It is the last space where we truly have privacy.

If employers collect brain data over time, could they go back and reanalyzs the raw data?

Technologists in the field a decade ago would have told people, “What are you worried about collecting neural data, there is so little we will ever be able to decode from surface-based electrodes rather than ones that are implanted in the brain.” They don’t say that anymore.

They recognise that we can already do so much more than we ever expected. As the algorithms get better and the more data we amass, the more precise the models become.

Given that most of this data is being uploaded to cloud servers and kept there indefinitely, you can have very significant longitudinal data. I hired this person when they were 23 and they are 43 now, how effective is their brain at this point? Have they served their good useful lifetime of service to us?

One of the things in your book is the idea that the brain waves reveal biases that we are not conscious of and can present us in our worst possible light. How does that work exactly?

Yes, potentially. The question is how effectively are they going to be able to do that in real time today. Can they set you up with a headset and probe your brain and figure out how you are reacting? Probably not. In the future can they do it? I think so.

Are there ways people can protect themselves?

We can and should require employers to do better. To say, here’s a transparent way that we’re planning on implementing [best practices] in the workplace. We’re giving the data to you to use. We’re not storing it.

There is a real risk that people won’t have choices. You can’t choose to interview with the only company that doesn’t use brain-based metrics if everybody decides to use them. So I think it’s a combination of people looking out for themselves but also putting into place appropriate default rules at the government level and trying to encourage corporate responsibility.

Interview has been condensed and edited.


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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