Punchtime employee tracking app raises privacy concerns

An Ottawa company has waded into the world of employee tracking and metric collection with a new app, but the technology is raising issues surrounding an employer's right to know versus an employee's right to privacy.

'We cannot start controlling every step; we're not robots,' University of Ottawa law professor says

Punchtime is a made-in-Ottawa app designed to help employers automate time sheets and payroll for their employees, but the technology is also raising privacy concerns. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

An Ottawa company has waded into the world of employee tracking and metric collection with a new app, but the technology is raising issues surrounding an employer's right to know versus an employee's right to privacy.

"Who, what, when and where. Simple and smart time tracking that keeps you and your team focused on real work," is a tagline for Punchtime, an app created by three businessmen to help employers automate time sheets and payroll for their employees.

"At its core, it's employee metrics. We gather information about employees every day: what they're doing, when they're doing it and where they're doing it," said Chris Desjardins, co-founder and CEO of Punchtime Inc.
Chris Desjardins, co-founder and CEO Punchtime Inc., says his company believes workers have the right to privacy. (CBC)

Gilles LeVasseur, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in labour and corporate law, said the devil is in the details. Employee performance is usually based on results, but technologies like Punchtime could put more of a focus on the execution of individual tasks.

'We cannot start controlling every step'

"Normally you're supposed to execute a task and the performance is based on the results. Now, we're looking at the process and the task itself. ... [Employers are] entitled to know [what employees are up to], but there's a certain flexibility there. We cannot start controlling every step; we're not robots," LeVasseur told CBC News anchor Adrian Harewood on Tuesday.

Examples of potential misuse could include evaluating employee performance based on how much time it takes to send an email or meet with clients, LeVasseur said.

"There comes a time when there's too much control that's being executed on the employee. ... That becomes a type of control that becomes very suffocating, and not everybody has the same capacity to perform, so there has to be measures to allocate that flexibility in the timing."
Gilles LeVasseur, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in corporate and labour law, says employee tracking apps like Punchtime could be used inappropriately. (CBC News)

Karen Eltis, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in privacy, said employee tracking isn't new, but that it requires more analysis and interpretation.

"If the tracking isn't related to a legitimate business interest, or if the tracking is disproportionate to what the work is and what the business needs of the employer are, that can raise human rights problems in terms of privacy and dignity of the worker," Eltis said.

"Just as employees can take advantage of new technologies to, for instance, be on social networking all day rather than perform their duties ... the employer, too, can be tracking the employee inappropriately. That is to say, in personal circumstances, or otherwise trap the employee in a manner that is inappropriate."

'Business of big data'

Punchtime is being used at Terrace Youth Wellness Centre, which provides services for high-risk children and youth. The app allows the organization to keep track of where its employees are interacting with youths, which can come in handy if a crisis situation escalates and the employee needs help, according to operations manager Amanda Graham.

Amanda Graham, an operations manager at Terrace Youth Wellness Centre, says she doesn't think the Punchtime app infringes on her privacy. (CBC)

Graham said she's not worried about her own privacy.

"I think when I log in on shift ... they already have a general idea of where I am in regards to which home, if we're going to the movies, out grocery shopping, that kind of stuff. I think this really just kind of makes it a little bit more detailed," she said.

Desjardins said the Punchtime app shuts down when workers aren't working, and that detailed tracking and metrics can be beneficial for employees and employers alike.

"We believe, at Punchtime, that employees have all of the right to privacy. When you're off the clock, 
Punchtime does not track what you're doing, where you are or anything. It's completely turned off, and that's something that we've built into the core and we would never enable an employer to track employees after working hours," he said.

"Now within working hours, it's beneficial to employees to live this type of transparency and to share with their co-workers, with their managers and everybody in the company what they're doing at any given time and where they're doing it.

"Beyond just automating time sheets and payroll, which is what we do at our core, we think that the business of big data and information in relation to employee activities is where it's at."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?