View from the street of Apple Genius employee looking at iPhones showing policy on biometric data for Apple employees

White Collar / Blue Collar Schism at Apple: Factory Workers Subject to Collection of Biometric Data, Extra Security Measures

Apple has branded itself as the company that puts user privacy front and center, making bold moves to that end with the release of iOS 14. It has called privacy a “fundamental human right” and has said that its internal human rights policy applies to ” … business partners and people at every level of its supply chain.” However, it seems that some elements of the chain are more equal than others. A new company policy forbids manufacturing partners from collecting the biometric data of visiting Apple employees, but says nothing about the over one million workers that put Apple’s products together in these facilities.

These workers will also now be subject to tighter security controls mandated by Apple, which include criminal background checks, an expansion of surveillance cameras and new systems that track components during the assembly process and issue alerts when something is in one place for too long or not moving as expected.

Double standards in Apple’s biometric data collection?

Apple has sought to differentiate itself from the rest of the tech world with its public focus on privacy and human rights. One of the most notable developments has been its willingness to virtually abandon the targeted advertising industry with the rollout of iOS 14. However, the company has its own long track record of issues when it comes to the ground-level labor that puts its devices together. The company has long relied on Chinese manufacturing, with plants like Foxconn heavily criticized for working conditions and practices that have been called exploitative (and in some cases were outright illegal). In December, former members of the Apple Supplier Responsibility Team (including a senior manager of operations in China) accused the company of being complicit in labor law violations, claiming that the team was aware of the use of forced labor and overuse of temporary workers at certain plants but overlooked it because addressing the issue might have delayed product launches.

A recent update to Apple’s factory security guidelines, a copy of which was obtained by The Information, forbids manufacturing partners from collecting biometric data (such as iris scans and fingerprints) of visiting Apple employees but makes no similar provisions for plant workers. In fact, workers are now subject to a string of new security requirements aimed primarily at keeping intellectual property and prototypes from leaking out. The internal Apple documents indicate that the workers making Apple products can expect to be under increased surveillance, and those that transport sensitive parts from one area of a plant to another will be required to pass through new security checkpoints that keep detailed logs of movements. Plant workers will also now need a government-issued photo ID to move about the facility.

Some elements of Apple’s new security guidelines could be said to be common sense policy for one of the world’s biggest corporate espionage targets. But critics say that biometric data collection is uniquely troubling. It is a contentious issue in the workplace for a number of reasons. One is the need to secure all of that information once collected; biometric data is a unique risk as if it is leaked in a breach, the subject cannot change it to deal with the consequences as they can with financial account numbers or passwords. Another issue is that the collection of such information could open doors for discrimination. Several states have laws preventing employers from collecting biometric data from employees without their consent. China does have some developing law that restricts the circumstances in which biometric data can be collected and used, but at present employers still have a great deal of latitude in which to use it if security needs can be invoked.

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Employee surveillance in other Big Tech workplaces

The move also comes amidst a fresh debate stirred by the increased implementation of employee surveillance in Big Tech workplaces. Amazon has taken heat in recent weeks for proposing that new cameras in its delivery vehicles will have the ability to view the driver’s face at all times and automatically send the company footage when certain driving maneuvers are performed. A recent leak also revealed that the company had been planning a program meant to surveil workers identified as potential labor organizers by scanning social media accounts and infiltrating closed Facebook groups. Remote employee monitoring has also become a serious issue during the pandemic. Multinational call center Teleperformance is the latest to up the ante by proposing that its work-from-home staff be required to install a specialized webcam that uses AI to scan for periods of idleness and “infractions” such as using a mobile phone or having other people present.


Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine