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Security firms hijack New York trees to monitor private workforce

Private security firms in New York City have co-opted public resources – specifically trees – to track their guards as they make their rounds.

According to Gothamist, a New York-focused news site, security contractors have been drilling into trees on public city streets to install signaling hardware to ensure that guards are following their patrol routes.

One such device, known as a Deggy Button, was noted by New York-based writer Jeremiah Moss on his Instagram feed.

Deggy Buttons are battery-powered, all-weather transmitters that communicate with a mobile phone app as part of a guard tour system, which the Florida security firm, describes as a mechanism for performance accountability. The company says, “guards can prove exactly when, specifically where and what they inspected at a location.”

Other companies make similar guard-tour “solutions,” such as TrackTik Software, which can be configured to read NFC tags set up on patrol routes.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation told The Register, “We are aware that these devices exist. As we find these devices, they will be removed – some have already been removed.”

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department said this hasn’t been an issue in city parks to date.

Deggy did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether it provides customers with guidance about installing its products on public property.

Setting aside the legality of turning public trees into worker accountability report stations for private companies, performance monitoring remains a controversial topic. Done respectfully, it can be an appropriate mechanism for worker management. And done without regard for privacy and dignity, it can be oppressive and can promote harm.

Various studies have noted an increase in workplace surveillance [1, 2, PDFs], some of which can be attributed to the shift from onsite work to remote work driven by the COVID 19 pandemic.

A spokesperson for Kings Security Service, a Bronx-based firm, told The Register that the company uses tracking tools like the Deggy Button “to track our guys to make sure they’re doing their patrols” and that they don’t object to being monitored in that way.

The company said it has not heard from city authorities.

Electronic managerial oversight has become more of an issue at Amazon, prompting unionization efforts in response to unwelcomed staff monitoring.

A 2020 report from the Open Markets Institute, a progressive think tank, accuses Amazon of harmful worker surveillance practices. And last year, the organization updated its report arguing that Amazon’s worker surveillance disproportionately targets low-paid workers and people of color.

In April, internal Amazon documents suggested the company was building an internal messaging app for employees designed to block words associated with labor conditions and controversial topics. When word of the app’s development was reported, Amazon dismissed concerns by saying the chat app had not been officially approved and might never be released.

In January, California Assemblymember Ash Kalra proposed a bill called the Workplace Technology Accountability Act, or AB 1651, that would set standards for workplace monitoring. The California Chamber of Commerce, a business interest group, labeled the “first of its kind” bill a “job killer” [PDF] and the legislation was subsequently withdrawn.

Absent rules that define reasonable electronic management of workers and ensure human dignity, these issues will only become more complicated as surveillance technology becomes more capable. ®