Centre for Internet & Society

Some members of the housekeeping staff at IIT Ropar were put under round the clock surveillance during working hours for many days in February this year without their consent. IIT Ropar Director Prof S K Das has ordered a probe into the incident.

The article by Rachna Khaira was published in Huffington Post on December 31, 2019. Aayush Rathi was quoted.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Ropar is conducting a probe into the reported tagging and round the clock electronic surveillance of some housekeeping staff members as part of an experiment run by the Technology Business Incubation Foundation (TBIF) located at the IIT campus  in February this year.

HuffPost India has learnt that the TBIF, a tech incubator run within IIT Ropar, signed off on the “Sweepy” project in which housekeeping staff were given wristbands and brooms secretly embedded with tracking chips, without seeking the consent of the janitorial staff, or informing IIT Ropar management.

While the housekeeping staff were told the wristbands would record their pulse and heart beat, and that they should wear it while cleaning the campus, the tracking chips were used to track to assess if they were sweeping out hard-to-reach corners of the institute.

Prof. Sarit Kumar Das, Director IIT Ropar  told HuffPost India that a  three member committee comprising of Prof. Bijoy H Barua, Prof. Javed Agrewala and Prof. Deepak Kashyap has been set up to look into the matter.

“We at the IIT Ropar respect privacy and  condemn any such violation made by any of our student or staff member,” said Prof. Das. “Before conducting any experiment on human beings, an approval has to be sought from the human ethics team constituted  in  our institution and they present a case to me after seeking a written consent from the people who would undergo the experiment. Only, after getting my approval, such an experiment can be conducted at the campus.”

Sweeping surveillance

J K Sharma, the Chief Operating Officer of TBIF, told HuffPost India that his tech incubator deliberately misled the housekeeping staff about the true purpose of the wristband as they felt the housekeeping staff wouldn’t agree to wear such a device.

While elaborating more on the ‘Sweepy’ project, Sharma said that the project was based on an idea that came to the hostellers who were upset over the housekeeping staff for not cleaning their rooms.

“The sweepers were not working properly and despite reporting the matter several times to the authorities, they were not taking any cognisance. Perturbed, the students developed this programme in which the location of the sweeper can be recorded and monitored in a control room by a gadget tied to the sweeper’s wrist,” said Sharma.

He further added that a beacon records the activity of the sensor pasted to the broom or mop held by the sweeper and can monitor the area  and the time in which it was used. The report was produced digitally on the screen.

Was a consent sought from the sweepers before tagging them?

“The testing was done in a secret manner as the housekeeping staff may not have given their consent for the trial. We tried it on three sweepers and while two of them were found working dedicatedly, one was found to have missed  cleaning from few areas assigned to him,” said Sharma.

The findings were shared with the housekeeping supervisor who later directed his staff to do their duty more diligently.

The team working on the project however told HuffPost India that they secured the privacy of the housekeeping staff by removing the microphone from the gadgets tied to their wrists.

This technology does not have video feature and only monitors location of a moving object and is quite cheap as compared to the radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects.

The testing was done in a secret manner as the housekeeping staff may not have given their consent for the trial. We tried it on three sweepers and while two of them were found working dedicatedly, one was found to have missed  cleaning from few areas assigned to himJ K Sharma, Chief Executive Officer, Technology Business Incubation Foundation, IIT Ropar

Calling this an increasingly commonplace trend of covert spying on domestic workers without their knowledge, Ayush Rathi, Programme Officer, Centre for Internet and Society, said that the housekeeping staff was made to wear the gadget under a false pretense is telling.

“This is a classic example of how the access to privacy is stratified along the axes of class, caste and gender. And ties in closely with a key purpose of surveillance — that of exerting control over people’s bodies to conform to the surveiller’s ideas of right and wrong,” said Rathi.

He further added that in many ways, this story captures the zeitgeist of the 21st century. The is the essence of so much of what qualifies as innovation today is that they seek to find technological solutions to problems that are structural in nature.

“So, in this instance it is very evident that the objective sought to be achieved was not to merely ‘fix’ the problem of the housekeeping staff performing its duties well, but to solely hold them guilty for failing to do so,” said Rathi.

An alternate, albeit more tedious, approach would have been to speak with the workers and iron out the struggles they were facing at the workplace that were preventing them from performing their job well. Any solution could only have been prepared thereafter — he added.

As per Prof. Das, a major problem with the engineering students is that unlike medical students, 90 percent of their experiments are based on machines and not human beings.

“There is  too much deficiency of  the understanding of human psychology amongst engineering students. To curb this, we at the IIT have started a mandatory course on human ethics which is being taught by some of the renowned human psychology experts. Still sometimes, the violations gets reported,” said Prof. Das.