Humans aren’t always great at respecting each other’s privacy. However, common sense says there’s a clear boundary when it comes to the thoughts in one’s own head and the feelings in one’s heart.

For bus drivers in Beijing though, it seems that’s no longer the case. These professional drivers are now being asked to wear emotional monitors while on the job, raising concerns from both legal and privacy advocates. But the devices aren’t really anything more than workout monitors, and whether they can actually make good on their Orwellian promise remains to be seen.

In Your Head, In Your Head!

The monitoring wristbands have been rolled out to some of Beijing’s long-distance bus drivers. Credit: Cypp0847, CC-BY-SA-4.0

When George Orwell wrote 1984, it was only 1949. However, he was able to foresee a world in which surveillance was omnipresent and inescapable. He also envsioned the concept of thoughtcrime, where simply contemplating the wrong things could get you in serious trouble with the authorities.

As we all know, Orwell was way off – these predictions didn’t become reality until well into the 2000s. In the latest horrifying development, technologies now exist that claim to be able to monitor one’s emotional state. Now, China’s transportation sector is rushing to push them on their workforces.

Long-distance bus drivers in Beijing are now being told to wear electronic wristbands when on the job. These wristbands claim to be able to capture the wearer’s emotional state, monitoring it on behalf of the employer. The scheme was the idea of the Beijing Public Transport Holding Group. The state-run organization claims the technology is intended for the safety of the public, and a trial of the wristbands began in July this year.

The technology is relatively crude. It doesn’t scan brainwaves or interface directly with the individual on a conscious level. Instead, it monitors the driver’s vital signs much like a common smartwatch. The wristbands capture body temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and respiratory data. They also reportedly measure blood pressure, exercise levels, and the user’s sleep patterns.

All that data is then processed to generate an idea of the wearer’s emotional state. The wristbands can be monitored in real-time by the organization to keep track of its employees on a live basis.

Legal experts have questioned the value of the monitoring scheme. Issues concern the validity of the conclusions drawn by the wristbands, and the impact this could have on employees. Those that routinely get rated as “angry” or “upset” by the wristbands could be discriminated against or lose their jobs, whether or not their emotional state was accurately assessed or even impacting their work. With something as subjective and malleable as emotional states, it’s also difficult to see how a machine could reliably draw conclusions.

As for the data, it’s also unclear how it would actually be used in practice. If a crash occurs and an employee’s wristband reports they were “agitated” or “sad,” how does that feed into what happens next? Many of us may grow annoyed and frustrated in bad traffic, after all, and that means absolutely nothing if another driver happens to cause an accident with our vehicle. It’s hard to imagine the technology being used in anything but a punitive manner.

A Worrying Trend

Whether or not the scheme makes any sense doesn’t seem to matter in the broader scheme of things. The wristbands fit an overwhelming theme in modern Chinese society – that of overwhelming, all-pervasive surveillance. The country already runs “social credit” systems that rate citizens based on their criminal history, economic activity, and public behaviour. Fall afoul of these, and you might suddenly find it hard to apply for government permits or even travel via rail, sea, or air. These monitoring wristbands are just another expansion of the surveillance that already takes place in China.

Other countries should hardly consider themselves free of such concerns, however. Warehouse employees around the world are routinely monitored for their behavior, and can be penalized for working too slowly or taking too many bathroom breaks. Workers on apps like Uber and Doordash similarly have their every action monitored, ranked and critically analyzed. Again, penalties are swift for poor performance or behaviour. Indeed,  examples are too numerous to mention, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

Corporations and governments are often eager to implement such technologies as soon as they become available. In the absence of robust privacy protections for the individual, there’s always a great risk of these technologies infringing on one’s personal liberties. In most countries, these simply don’t exist. Of course, sometimes compliance is enforced not with threats to one’s job or liberty, but in softer ways, too. It’s all too common that our access to social media, streaming services, or web searches is contingent on allowing corporations to collect great dossiers of information on our daily activities.

In the case of these wristbands, the threat isn’t even from new advanced technology. The system is only capable of collecting the same data as something like a typical smartwatch, and it’s paired with a emotion-matching algorithm that’s sophisticated or silly depending on your point of view.

The real threat is the fact that people’s livelihoods are being put at risk based on spurious measurements and maths from a wristband they have little choice in wearing. It’s sets a poor precedent for those who appreciate that one’s own body, mind and soul should be a private place.

Banner photo: “Female Beijing bus driver” by Ole Bendik Kvisberg.

Thumbnail image: “Beijing bus” by Michael Wood


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