Small Business

GPS Employee Tracking Apps; What does UK law say?

A quick guide to GPS time tracking apps, employee opinions and the UK law ...
Sean QuinnPosted on Friday, December 9th 2022

Although GPS has been around since 1973, it wasn't until the early 21st century that this technology became embedded into most of our lives. Far from its simple intended purpose of navigating and positioning, GPS technology has now been adopted by apps which do everything from checking the local weather forecast, to ordering food from local restaurants. Most smartphone users are now accustomed to apps requesting their location, and in most cases will share this data willingly to improve their experience.

However, many are now calling into question the necessity of 24/7 background location tracking, and what personal information our location history might convey to those harvesting this data. In particular, many employees have concerns about the GPS tracking features built into employee monitoring apps, and the extent of tracking these apps can provide. In many workplaces, location tracking apps are a contentious subject - they may provide genuine benefits to employers and employees alike, but can also raise questions about our right to privacy.

How do GPS time tracking apps work?

Different GPS-enabled tracking apps all track your time (and movements) in various ways, depending on the permissions the app requests and the settings your employer has enabled.

Many employee monitoring apps provide 'background location tracking', which means your GPS location can be continuously monitored, even when you're not actively using the app. Some apps will allow employers to specify your working hours, so live GPS tracking will only be available during those hours, and your location is only ever recorded during your shifts. However, other (more invasive) apps will be set to always track by default, which means GPS tracking is enabled 24 hours a day, even if you're off the clock.

At the other end of the spectrum are apps which request and record your device's GPS location only when you perform certain functions, such as clocking in or out. This check is used to verify that you are at the right location (or within a pre-set acceptable radius) before you can clock in for work, and your precise GPS location at that point will usually be recorded for future reference if your employer wants to check your previous clock-in locations. Once the app is closed, you can then go about your day knowing that your employer cannot check your live GPS location, and your location data will only be updated the next time you clock in or out.

How do apps with automatic geofence clock-in work?

Many apps offer 'automatic clock-in', which will clock an employee in or out as soon as they cross a pre-set 'geofence'. Geofences are defined areas, usually a radius around an address, which cover the area you're expected to work in. Once you cross the boundary into a geofenced area, these apps will begin your work timer, and will pause it whenever you leave. This provides incredibly accurate time tracking, and means employees don't have to remember to clock in and out, but there are some serious privacy concerns surrounding this method of clock in.

In order to detect that a worker has crossed the boundary into work, the app must be tracking them before they arrive - in other words, their location must be tracked during their personal time.

Tracking an employee's location during what is considered personal time has serious privacy implications, and it may be difficult to justify the legal basis for collecting this sensitive personal data. After all, under GDPR, employers have a responsibility to provide justification for all data collected, and ensure data collection is not excessive.

The law states that employers can conduct monitoring on employees so long as it's fair, lawful and transparent. The purpose of the monitoring must also be specified, legitimate and explicit. So in the case of GPS monitoring, it might be legitimate to use an employee's GPS location during their working hours to verify they are at the correct location, so long as this purpose was communicated clearly to the employee.

For apps which continuously monitor background location, especially outside of working hours, it would be much more difficult for an employer to provide a legitimate or explicit reason for collecting this data.

When employers insist that monitoring is a condition of employment, things become even trickier legally. One case saw a woman in the United States fired for disabling a mobile GPS tracking app, which was set to track continuously even outside of working hours. The employee in question went on to sue her former employer for damages, asserting that her privacy had been breached.

In another case, the court sided with an employee whose company-issued vehicle had been fitted with a GPS tracker, which tracked both his work and personal journeys. However, the ruling was made due to the lack of express consent from the employee, rather than the invasive nature of the technology itself.

It's important to note that due to the nature of the software sector being worldwide, the providers of these apps may not fall under the same jurisdiction as the businesses using them; in this case, it's down to the individual business to assess their own local laws and choose which features to utilise (or which to avoid).

How do employees feel about GPS tracking?

In general, most employees have reservations about installing GPS tracking apps on their personal devices, or have concerns about the way their location data may be used by their employer.

In a survey by Quickbooks, 70% of employees who hadn't been asked to use GPS before felt that it would be an invasion of their privacy, with 68% having concerns that they'd be tracked after work. Clearly, being required to use constant GPS tracking can cause serious damage to employee trust, and may have long term effects on the working relationship. Of those who had been previously asked to use GPS tracking software by their employer, 3% had threatened to quit and 3% went on to terminate their employment over the issue, proving how contentious the topic can be for some workers.

Notifying employees about the methods used to monitor them and the personal data held about them is a legal requirement in most cases in the UK, so employers should already be taking the time to explain their chosen mechanisms in detail and address any privacy concerns straight away.

The bottom line

Advances in technology tend to move much more quickly than legislation, so the rules surrounding tracking employee's locations using mobile GPS aren't yet set in stone.

In order to build employee trust and avoid potential legal concerns though, it might be best to opt-out of continuous background location tracking, and use minimal GPS tracking for it's intended legitimate purpose; to ensure accurate time and attendance data and safety on site, without infringing on employees' personal lives or privacy.

The information provided here is intended as a guide for entertainment only and is our best interpretation of current legislation. This does not constitute legal advice; consult with a legal professional for advice on your business' specific situation.

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