At New York City's Department of Design and Construction, reporting for work is a low-tech, honor-system affair. Employees use sign-in sheets and fill out time cards.
Not for long. Many of the agency's architects, engineers and other workers will soon be asked to present their palms to prove they're on the job. Electronic hand scanners were recently installed as part of a citywide payroll-automation plan.
City officials call the new system efficient and secure. Some workers call it intrusive and insulting, and they said as much to city labor officials in a complaint filed yesterday.
From whatever perspective, the hand-scanner system puts the agency's Long Island City office in the midst of a movement toward tapping biology to keep track of workers. A growing corps of companies, government agencies and other employers are scanning hands, fingerprints and even eyes to control access and verify workers' hours.
Biometrics - technologies that verify identity by using body parts (like fingerprints) or behavior (handwriting) - are gaining popularity in a security-conscious age. A leading industry researcher, International Biometric Group, projects the market for biometric devices will more than double, to $5.7 billion a year, by 2010.
Once the futuristic stuff of James Bond movies, biometrics are percolating into everyday life. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., scans fingers to match visitors with their admission passes. Some college students use their hands instead of ID cards to get into dorms and other campus buildings. Computers, cell phones and even garage doors now come with biometric scanners.
So do a rising number of jobs. Ingersoll Rand Recognition Systems of Campbell, Calif., a major manufacturer of hand readers, says more than 100,000 of its devices are used at workplaces ranging from an Ohio ice-cream plant to a Florida golf club to a resort-construction site on the Macau peninsula of China.
To use the scanners, an employee enters an ID code or swipes a card and then places his or her hand on a sensor. The machine gauges the hand's size and shape and determines whether it matches what's on file for that code or card. The "hand geometry" images aren't comparable to the detailed fingerprints used in law enforcement, says Tom Brigham, an Ingersoll Rand spokesman.
Some employers - such as airports, shipping ports, research facilities and nuclear plants - tend to use the scanners primarily for security. But others see them more as tools to make payroll easier, more accurate and harder to fudge.
For public schools in Birmingham, Ala., hand scanners were the answer to a judge's call for a better time-keeping system, says schools spokeswoman Regina Waller. The school system installed the devices after paying $4 million to settle an overtime-related lawsuit, in part because some paper time sheets were lost or otherwise unverifiable, she said.
People First Inc., a Florida-based payroll-processing firm, finds that hand-scanner systems can cut clients' expenses by about 10 percent, says president Barbara Flynn. The scanner systems stop colleagues from clocking each other in, save supervisors hours of work checking time cards and guarantee workers that their true hours are being logged, she said.
"It protects the company from liability ... and it protects the employee from being taken advantage of," she says.
But privacy advocates find such systems troubling. The more personal information gets collected, the more is at risk if the data is hacked into or otherwise exposed, says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"There are a lot of other ways to find out whether someone is present at work," she says. "[With biometrics] you open up the employee for problems later on if the information is compromised ... and you can't get a new fingerprint."
The legal framework around the workplace use of biometrics - and electronic monitoring overall - is still emerging.
Workers at the New York City construction office aim to help shape it. The Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375, which represents about 600 of the construction office workers, lodged a formal complaint yesterday with the city Office of Collective Bargaining, says union lawyer Rachel J. Minter.
The union says the hand-scanner system represents so big a change in workplace conditions that it should be subject to negotiation. The construction-office staff has never had to punch time clocks, let alone submit a body part for inspection, says Jon Forster, a union vice president.
"[Employees] come to me and say, 'Jon, they trust me with a $10 million project, but they don't trust that I'm going to sign in?'" he said.
But a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg argues that the hand reader will save employees the trouble of filling out time sheets.
As for the privacy implications of relying on biometrics, "you can create a hypothetical argument for not doing anything, anytime," said the spokesman, Stu Loeser. "Is the argument that people are going to go out and create prosthetic hands?"
Several city agencies already use the hand-reader system, including the personnel and law offices, Loeser said.
Biometric products and services being sold in 2006
Software services 11%
Annual revenue for makers, sellers and others in the biometric industry; 2006 and
SOURCE: INTERNATIONAL BIOMETRIC GROUP