Enforcement against the use of biometrics in the workplace

29 February 2024 7 min read

By Katherine Gibson, James Clark, Rachel de Souza, Ataikor Ngerebara and Isla Neil

At a glance

  • The ICO has issued an enforcement notice which provides valuable insights into its approach to the use of biometrics in the workplace, and the lawfulness of employee monitoring activities more broadly.
  • On 23 February 2024, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ordered Serco Leisure Operating Limited (Serco), an operator of leisure facilities, to stop using facial recognition technology and fingerprint scanning (biometric data) to monitor employee attendance and subsequent payment for their time. Serco operates the leisure facilities on behalf of leisure trusts, some of which were also issued enforcement notices, as joint controllers.

Serco introduced biometric technology in May 2017 within 38 Serco-operated leisure facilities. Serco considered that previous systems for monitoring attendance were prone to abuse, on the basis that manual sign-in sheets were prone to human error. Additionally, Serco found that manual sheets were abused by a minority of employees and further that ID cards were used inappropriately by employees. As a result, Serco considered that using biometric technology was the best way to prevent these abuses.

To support this assessment, Serco produced a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) and legitimate interest assessment (LIA). Within these documents, Serco identified the lawful bases for the processing of biometric data as Articles 6(1)(b) and (f) and the relevant condition for special category personal data as Article 9(2)(b) of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR).

Article 6(1)(b) was selected on the basis that Serco considered that operating the attendance monitoring system was necessary for compliance with the employees’ employment contracts. Article 6(1)(f) was selected in connection with Serco’s legitimate interests, which presumably related to the wider aims of the attendance monitoring system and the move to use biometric data, outlined above.

Serco selected Article 9(2)(b) on the basis that it considered that this processing was required for compliance with applicable laws relating to employment, social security and social protection. In particular, Serco considered that it needed to process attendance data to comply with a number of regulations, such as working time regulations, national living wage, right to work and tax/accounting regulations.

The contravention

Despite the above, the ICO believed Serco, as a controller, had failed to establish an appropriate lawful basis and special category personal data processing condition for the processing of biometric data. Serco had therefore contravened Articles 5(1)(a), 6 and 9 of the UK GDPR. The ICO had previously served Serco with a Preliminary Enforcement Notice in November 2023, giving Serco the opportunity to provide written representations, which the ICO considered in issuing the Enforcement Notice of 23 February 2024.

The ICO gave Serco three months from the date of the Enforcement Notice, to:

  • cease all processing of biometric data for the purpose of employment attendance checks from the facilities, and not implement biometric technology at any further facilities; and
  • destroy all biometric data and all other personal and special category data that Serco is not legally obliged to retain.

Key takeaways from the Enforcement Notice

Processing must be necessary in order to rely on most lawful bases and special category personal data processing conditions.

The ICO emphasised that the processing of biometric data cannot be considered as 'necessary' when less intrusive means could be used to achieve the same purpose.

It is not ordinarily necessary for an employer to process biometric data in order to operate an attendance monitoring system. It is of course necessary for employee attendance data to be processed, but this would not usually extend to biometric data.

It could perhaps be possible to argue that it is necessary to use biometric data in connection with attendance monitoring in an extreme case, but this would need to be based on specific circumstances. In this case, although Serco had considered that other less intrusive methods were subject to abuse, this consideration was not sufficient to justify use of biometric data on its own.

The ICO’s position was that Serco had not provided enough information to support its argument that eliminating abuse of the attendance monitoring system was a necessity, rather than simply a further benefit to Serco. There was a lack of evidence of consideration of alternative means of handling such abuse eg taking disciplinary action against the individuals responsible. The processing of biometric data was therefore not a targeted and proportionate way of achieving the purpose of verifying attendance.

An appropriate balancing test must be conducted when relying on legitimate interest

The ICO considered that in relying on its legitimate interests as a lawful basis, Serco did not give appropriate weight to the intrusive nature of biometric processing and the risks to the employees. Failure to give such appropriate weight meant that Serco could not rely on Article 6(1)(f).

Additionally, the ICO found that legitimate interests would not be regarded as an appropriate lawful basis where:

  • The processing has a substantial privacy impact. In this instance, it was the regular and systematic processing of employee biometric data, which would entail a regular intrusion into their privacy over which they have no, or minimal control.
  • Employees are not given clear information about how they could object or alternative methods of monitoring that did not involve intrusive processing. The fairness of processing, the availability and ease with which to exercise data subject rights and the provision of clear information are factors that should be taken into account when relying on legitimate interests and conducting an appropriate balancing test. The ICO highlighted that Serco had failed to process data fairly by not bringing the alternative mechanisms to the employees’ attention, even when an employee complained. There was also failure to process fairly as employees were not informed on how they could object to the processing.
  • There is an imbalance of power between the employer and employees, such that employees may not have felt able to object (without detriment) even if they have been informed that they could.

Specific legal obligation must be identified from the onset of processing in order to rely on Article 9(2)(b) UK GDPR

In this instance, Serco had initially failed (including in its DPIA), to identify the specific obligation or right conferred by law on which it relied in reference to Article 9(2)(b) of the UK GDPR.

In this case, it may be that this omission was due to the fact that there is no such obligation or right conferred by law. Whilst there are legal obligations to record time and attendance data, health and safety obligations and requirements to manage the employment relationship, there are no specific legal obligations that would necessitate the processing of biometric data in connection with attendance monitoring.

In cases where there is a specific legal obligation or right conferred to process special category data (for example, in respect of the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments or to manage sickness at work), the ICO emphasised that it is not sufficient to simply select Article 9(2)(b) of the UK GDPR as the basis for processing. The controller must identify the specific obligation or right conferred by law and must have done so from the outset – before the processing of special category personal data commences.

It is also worth noting that, despite having conducted a DPIA and LIA, Serco could also not rely on this condition because Serco did not produce an appropriate policy document as required by Sch. 1 Para 1(1)(b) of the Data Protection Act 2018 and had failed to demonstrate the necessity of processing biometric data (as referred to above).

The ICO will take account of infringement amplifiers

In addition to biometric data being one that carries greater risk of harm, the length of time of processing without an appropriate lawful basis (since 2017) and the number of data subjects involved (2,283), were also factors that the ICO considered as increasing the seriousness of the infringement.

Summary and conclusion

This decision does allow for the possibility to argue that use of biometric data is necessary, targeted and proportionate for attendance monitoring. However, as mentioned above, this would very much depend on the circumstances and the decision shows that this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

If an employer sought to rely on its legal obligations as a lawful basis for the processing, the controller would need to be in a position to show that the processing was now necessary to comply with these requirements. This would require it to provide evidence of widespread abuse and failure of other less intrusive methods. However even in these circumstances the employer would still need to consider fairness and proportionality in the operation of the system, as explained in this post.

It is possible for an employer to consider using employee consent as a basis under Article 9(2)(a) for processing biometric data in an attendance management system, given the limitations of Article 9(2)(b). However, as noted above, the imbalance of power in the employment relationship will act against the employer in relying on this basis unless there is a genuine ability for the employee to refuse using the system. In such a case, the operation of an alternative option to biometric data will be critical.

If an employer did wish to adopt biometric data processing for attendance monitoring systems, following this decision, we recommend that such an employer includes the following steps in the context of undertaking its DPIA, LIA and implementation processes:

  • identify the appropriate lawful basis for the processing activity;
  • if the lawful basis relates to a specific obligation or right conferred by law, identify and document that law;
  • consider whether the processing could be said to be necessary for the identified lawful basis and gather supporting evidence for this assessment, where relevant;
  • provide employees with clear information regarding the processing, including information regarding data retention and use, as well as clear information regarding their right to object. This must be provided in advance of the system being implemented;
  • undertake a full consideration of the fairness and proportionality of the processing, acknowledging that processing biometric data is extremely intrusive and carries significant privacy impacts for employees;
  • provide employees an alternative option to participate in the attendance monitoring system should they object to the use of their biometric data and ensure that this is used in practice (meaning that there must always be another way to monitor attendance alongside the biometric data); and
  • ensure that an appropriate policy document is implemented, if relying on a lawful basis under the UK GDPR that mandates this (eg Article 9(2)(b)).

 

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