Capturing the time employees’ work can be a difficult business. In addition to the complexity involved with accurately tracking arrival times, lunch breaks, overtime, etc. across a range of federal and state laws (check out our Wage and Hour colleagues who keep up on all of these issues), many employers worry about “buddy punching” or other situations when time entered into their time management system is entered by a person other than the employee to whom the time relates. To address that worry, some companies have implemented biometric tools to validate time entries. A simple scan of an individual’s fingerprint, for example, can validate that individual is the employee whose time is being entered. But that simple scan can come with some significant compliance obligations, as well as exposure to litigation as discussed in a recent Chicago Tribune article.

The use of biometric data still seems somewhat futuristic and high-tech, but the technology has been around for a while, and there are already a number of state laws addressing the collection, use and safeguarding of biometric information. We’ve discussed some of those here, including the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act which is the subject of the litigation referenced above. Notably, the Illinois law permits individuals to sue for violations and, if successful, can recover liquidated damages of $1,000 or actual damages, whichever is greater, along with attorneys’ fees and expert witness fees. The liquidated damages amount increases to $5,000 if the violation is intentional or reckless.

For businesses that want to deploy this technology, whether for time management, physical security, validating transactions or other purposes, there are a number of things to be considered. Here are just a few:

  • Is the company really capturing biometric information as defined under the applicable law? New York Labor Law Section 201-a generally prohibits the fingerprinting of employees by private employers. However, a biometric time management system may not actually be capturing a “fingerprint.” According to an opinion letter issued by the State’s Department of Labor on April 22, 2010, a device that measures the geometry of the hand is permissible as long as it does not scan the surface details of the hand and fingers in a manner similar or comparable to a fingerprint. So it is important to understand the technology and, specifically, the exact type of information being captured.
  • How long should biometric information be retained? A good rule of thumb – avoid keeping personal information for longer than is needed. The Illinois statute referenced above codifies this rule. Under that law, biometric identifiers and biometric information must be permanently destroyed when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the entity collecting it, whichever occurs first.
  • How should biometric information be accessed, stored and safeguarded? Before collecting biometric data, companies may need to provide notice and obtain written consent from the individual. This is the case in Illinois. As with other personal data, if it is accessible to or stored by a third party services provider, the company should obtain written assurances from its vendors concerning such things as minimum safeguards, record retention, and breach response.
  • Is the company ready to handle a breach of biometric data? Currently, 48 states have passed laws requiring notification of a breach of “personal information.” Under those laws, the definitions of personal information vary, and the definitions are not limited to Social Security numbers. A number of them include biometric information, such as Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. Accordingly, companies should include biometric data as part of their written incident response plans.

The use of biometrics is no longer something only seen in science fiction movies or police dramas on television. It is entering mainstream, including the workplace and the marketplace. Businesses need to be prepared.