Imagine living and working in a community where your boss uses drones and smart technology to monitor every aspect of your life – who you see and talk to, what you spend your money on and what you throw away in your rubbish.
You don’t need to imagine it: this is about to happen. And not in some foreign dictatorship or one-party state. In Australia.
The Guardian reports thousands of Rio Tinto mining personnel live in company-run mining camps in Western Australia, spending not just work hours but leisure and home time in space controlled by their employer.
Rio Tinto already uses technology to improve efficiency, replacing human-operated vehicles with automated trucks and trains controlled from an operations centre in Perth.
The company is attempting to manage its human workers in the same way. Privacy advocates fear a precedent that extends well beyond the mining industry.
Rio Tinto announced in March that Sodexo, a French company that also runs Australian prisons, had been enlisted in a 10-year contract managing three ports, six towns, three airports, 15 operational sites, 42 accommodation sites, 134 town assets, 336 commercial buildings and 3259 residential properties.
Sodexo approached the Guardian about publishing an article by the project’s manager, Keith Weston, vice-president for mining global sales and business development.
He detailed how the company is dramatically expanding surveillance of Rio Tinto’s assets in the remote Pilbara region through a platform that live streams information to a Perth monitoring station staffed by 50 people.
“It gives us actionable, real-time insights and metrics on equipment and people movement, customer satisfaction, even retail spending,” Weston wrote.
“Our goal is to get to the point where we can capture individual insights on where employees are spending their time and money and improve the quality of their lives.
“Over time, Sodexo plans to add sensors to light poles and rubbish bins, and we already have plans to start experimenting with drones.”
Already, GPS systems track vehicle movements and smart water systems notify operators about declining water supplies or pipes needing repair.
The smart infrastructure will also alert Sodexo to extreme weather, allowing the company to prepare for the cyclones that regularly hit the coast.
When the Guardian suggested a standalone story about the plans and sent questions, a PR firm representing Sodexo welcomed the proposal. Then it changed tack, requesting the investigation be abandoned because it was too early to report on many of the innovations.
After the Guardian published Weston’s article last week, a Sodexo spokesperson said: “Sodexo would like to clarify that there is no use of drones at any of the Rio Tinto sites in the Pilbara, and that all data collected is in line with both Australian government legislation and Rio Tinto privacy policies.
“The comments in regards to future technology [are] conceptual only and there are no intentions to introduce any of these concepts to Rio Tinto sites.”
Workforce sources say staff have not been informed or approached for consent to most of the initiatives in Weston’s article, and worry that the measures pave the way for further automation of the workforce.
In July the Western Mine Workers’ Alliance raised concerns about new surveillance at Western Turner iron ore mine, where workers noticed CCTV cameras had been installed.
The union claimed employees only realised they were being watched after hearing supervisors comment about their new ability to “zoom right in” on workers.
“This was a concern on many levels, not least privacy. Anyone who has worked in a remote area of a mine site knows that toilet facilities are few and far between,” the union noted.
Sodexo says smart waste disposal units would enable their central operating team to be alerted when bins need emptying. But civil liberty advocates have raised concerns that smart bins are capable of monitoring not just the quantity of rubbish, but exactly what is being thrown away.
David Vaile of the Australian Privacy Foundation said smart infrastructure could be used for all sorts of purposes, including cracking down on union activity, finding out if employees were visiting sex workers, pinpointing the source of leaks (of the whistleblower variety, not the water kind), and helping law enforcement with criminal investigations.
He worries the rollout of smart infrastructure in privately run communities could take hold across Australia.
“You might find councils and public entities that would not have initiated this kind of thing – as they have greater obligation to act in open ways, to respect civic virtues – they might look at it after and say, ‘Well it worked up there at Sodexo’s place, why can’t we do it, or pay them to do it for us?’”