Neurotechnology in the workplace

Emerging neurotechnologies may soon become part of our daily working lives.  Should we be concerned about the use of neurodata collected through neurotechnologies, its impact on privacy and the associated risk of workplace discrimination?  The Information Commissioner’s Office (‘the ICO’) certainly believes so.

The ICO has recently produced a report[i] (‘the Report’) looking at the impact of neurotechnologies and neurodata and it highlights the workplace as one of the sectors in which the usage of neurotechnologies is expected to expand in the medium term (the next four to five years).  We explore the potential usage of neurotechnologies and neurodata, and the related risks of this usage, in the workplace

What is neurodata and neurotechnology?

Whilst there is no explicit definition of these terms, the ICO defines neurodata as ‘…data gathered directly from a person’s neural systems (inclusive of both the brain and the nervous system) and …inferences based directly upon this data’ and neurotechnology as ‘…devices and procedures, both invasive and non-invasive, that directly record and process neurodata for the purposes of gathering data, controlling interfaces or devices, or modulating neural activity’.

How might neurodata and neurotechnologies be used in the workplace?

The Report highlights four areas in which the use of neurotechnology is relevant to the workplace.

  1. Employer access and ownership of neurodata – Human Resource departments need to consider compliance with data protection rules when processing neurodata.
  1. Workplace safety – the Report states that there is likely to be an increasing use of non-invasive neurotechnology to measure, record and process personal information.  Such systems may be used as part of health and safety or risk management.  For example, helmets or safety equipment that measure the attention and focus of an employee when using heavy machinery or a large vehicle.
  1. Workplace wellness – employee monitoring to enhance and enable workplace wellness in offices is already being explored.  Wearable neurotechnologies are helping employers monitor employee engagement and stress.
  1. Employee hiring – neurodata recording techniques are likely to be used increasingly during recruitment to help organisations identify people who fit desirable patterns or behaviour or perceived traits.

What risks may arise from the use of neurotechnologies in the workplace?

  1. Data protection – the Report suggests that finding an appropriate basis for processing neurodata is likely to be complex and organisations will need to consider fairness, transparency and data retention.
  1. Discrimination – conclusions drawn from data collected through neurotechnologies may lead to systemic bias in its processing, which may discriminate against those who are neurodivergent.  This is because the conclusions drawn from the information collated are likely to be based on highly debated scientific analysis of human emotion, which is based on systems that have been trained on neuro-normative patterns.

What steps is the ICO taking next?

The ICO is carrying out further work in this area to improve knowledge and understanding of the issues raised in the Report.  It is also developing specific neurodata guidance which will highlight good practice by 2025.

[i] Information Commissioner’s Office (2023) ICO tech future: neurotechnology. Available at: https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/research-and-reports/ico-tech-futures-neurotechnology/ Accessed on: 9 August 2023.