you can’t buy a new fingerprint

This weekend, I found myself in a mall for the first time in a while, returning something one of my kids bought. In the store, the cashier, who was a seasonal hire, had to call a manager to approve the return. The manager used his fingerprint to sign off on it.

The manager used his fingerprint to sign off on it.

I was sort of stunned to see this technology in the wild, and asked the cashier about it–he said, “oh yeah, they’re everywhere now–my other job is at a gas station, and I have to use my fingerprint to turn the gas pumps on in the morning when I get to work.” I asked him what kind of online security he thought the gas pumps had, and he laughed.

I’m not going to lie, knowing what I know about the ability of corporate America to keep credit card data safe, the idea that retail and other service sector employers are suddenly going to up their data security game to keep their employees’ biometric data secure from prying eyes seems…unlikely, at best.

What does it mean for low-wage workers, if employers demand sensitive personal data, and then fail to keep it safe?

This technology has been around since 2009, apparently. Companies who have implemented it seem to be focused on protecting themselves from theft–after all, a worker can’t swipe someone else in to cover their lateness, if they need to use their finger. But who is protecting the workers from the dangers of having their fingerprints stolen? After all, you can’t buy yourself a new fingerprint, if your employer’s personnel database gets hacked.

Apple’s Touch ID wasn’t yet invented, when this technology rolled out–but now it is very common for people to use their fingerprint to lock and unlock their phones. Banks and credit card companies are also starting to roll out fingerprint ID as a method of additional security for customers, as well. One can imagine a not-too-distant future where it is possible for those with malicious intent to reverse-engineer an individual’s fingerprint from a stored scan, to steal from or impersonate victims.

It’s time for the labor movement generally to get behind the push for a GDPR-like law in the US, or a national expansion of California’s new CCPA. Low-wage workers (and the rest of us) need protection from employers that demand our most unique identifiers.

Lenderly: peer-to-peer lending within your union or worker center?

How our organizations can better help people navigate the financial ups and downs of work as it becomes more precarious is a hot topic within the economic justice world these days. When the majority of Americans don’t have $500 in savings, we know that it is very hard to deal with routine “emergencies”–like an ER visit, an unexpected car repair, or a broken hot water heater.

Most of us are familiar with peer-to-peer lending programs like Kiva, which allow entrepreneurs and individuals around the world to borrow small-ish amounts of money, to fund business expansion or home improvements, without going through established banks. Lenders are partially repaid on a regular basis, until the entire loan is paid off–which can help both solve an immediate financial need for the borrower, and also establish a credit history for the borrower.

A new platform, Lenderly, developed a tool to refine this kind of peer-to-peer lending within existing networks. The site originally launched with faith communities in the US, and are now expanding their back end to be available for unions or worker centers who want to help facilitate loans between their membership.

Potential borrowers set up a specific funding request for between $300 to $5,000, and can specify the purpose of the loan with options like “take a class” or “pay medical bills.” The site acts as a guarantor of the loan–and will run a credit check on borrowers before making the loan request “live.” Borrowers also get to determine the length of time they will need to pay back the loan, up to two years.

Lenderly runs both the back end administration, adding their functionality to an existing website. It also helps borrowers get the word out about their loan request, by publicizing it to other people within that organization’s community.

Crowd-funding alone won’t fix income inequality, of course–but it might make it more possible for people to survive until we can build a more fair society.

Interested? Head over to lenderly.co and hit the “contact us” button–and let them know you heard about it on HtU.

New Tech for Bargainers

We’ve talked a lot about the need for new tech for organizers–but what about the tech needs of union stewards and reps who are handling grievances and bargaining contracts? Don’t they deserve some love too?

The developer of Trokt is aiming to help with that. Seems especially timely, in the wake of several unions announcing budget reductions for staff–can we, too, use technology to automate processes that used to require humans? (Freeing up the humans to do more of the kinds of organizing that we’ll all be called on to do in this present moment.)

I chatted with Chris Draper, the Director of Product for Trokt last month. Originally developed to save money that the State of Iowa was spending on paperwork tracking, Trokt has morphed into two basic products–a grievance tracker, which union stewards can use on their phones; and a contract changelog, that bargainers on both sides of the table can use to make sure they are tracking all the changes made at the table.

For stewards, or individual union members, Trokt provides a mobile app (available for iOS, Android, or as a web-based app) that can be used to file grievances, look up contract language, or check on the status of an already-filed grievance. Their analytics will track which articles of the contract were grieved over a specific period, making it easier to make decisions about what sections of the contract need review, when it comes time to open negotiations (goodbye, bargaining survey that is 10 pages long!).

For people doing bargaining, Trokt provides a way to share documents with those on the other side of the table, close out specific sections as you reach TA on them, and to track all changes as their made (so you can make sure that no one is changing the contract without reaching agreement first).

We’ve all got to get smarter about how we do our work and allocate resources in the coming years. I suspect that Trokt will help unions do more with less.

New website seeks to organize workers with electronic union cards

A newly-launched website, Unionize Me, hopes to enlist large numbers of low-wage workers in winning NLRB elections. Founded by lawyer Jason Zoladz, the site hopes to take advantage of the NLRB’s 2015 decision to allow workers to sign union authorization cards electronically.

Zoladz is hoping to shift the conversation in the US, to focus on the fact that low-wage workers (who have been striking in large numbers through the Fight for 15 campaign) need bargaining power with their specific companies.

“2 million Wal-Mart workers need a union,” Zoladz told me ( a fact that few readers of this site would dispute).

When we spoke, the site had only been live for 6 days, but Zoladz had already received a number of electronic signatures on authorization cards. At that point, no one worksite had met the 30% trigger for a union election. Zoladz does not intend to organize one stand-alone business at a time, however—he wants to wait until a reasonable majority of workers in one specific region have signed, so that workers will be able to take actions from a position of strength.

It remains to be seen whether a mostly-lawyer based strategy can flip the script on winning union elections—but I’ll be curious to see how this plays out, over time.

Interview with a roboticist

Part of my ongoing interest in writing about technology and work is inspired by the feeling that there really is a lot of cool stuff going on in the world–it’s not all just about my worry that we might find ourselves automated out of jobs, without a plan to replace income from work.

After the announcement of our twitter chat on #robotwork, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to talk to a roboticist–and of course, I said yes. I was hoping to have this interview posted before the chat, but due to a schedule mishap of my own making, that wasn’t possible. But I’m still very excited to have conducted our very first (email) interview with someone who’s working to make the world a better place, through robots.

Meet M. Bernadine Dias, Associate Research Professor in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

HtU: What was it that got you into this line of work?

Dias: I started in Physics because I was always interested in understanding how the world worked and using this knowledge to invent tools that serve humankind.  In university, I was introduced to Computer Science and was intrigued by the numerous ways in which computers can impact the world.  Robotics to me was the perfect marriage of Physics and Computer Science! So after University, and a double major in Physics and Computer Science, I went into grad school in Robotics.  However, I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, in a lower-middle-class family of six kids and one income, so people and community have always been very important to me. My undergraduate degree was also in the Liberal Arts.  So even though I double majored in Physics and Computer Science, I also minored in Women’s Studies, and took courses in Philosophy, Sculpture, Economics, and much more. So my vision was always to use technology to help preserve communities and their cultures while empowering each community to realize their vision of progress.  That is how and why I started my research group TechBridgeWorld after I completed my Ph.D. in robotics.

HtU: What is the “problem” that your work is trying to solve?

Dias: In general, my work aims to empower technologically under-served communities with technology tools that cater to their needs and help them to overcome their challenges and move towards their vision of progress.  I therefore primarily work with people in developing communities and people with disabilities.  So we build tools such as low-cost devices to help blind children to learn to write braille using the slate and stylus method which is used in the developing world. You can see an article I wrote for Footnote.

Other relevant articles you may find interesting are:

Information & Communication Technologies for Development

ICT4D2.0: The Next Phase of Applying ICT for International Development

HtU: What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

Dias: That’s tough.  I work on a lot of cool things 🙂 I guess I’ll pick my newest project – which is titled assistive robots for blind travelers.  We are exploring how different types of robots can effectively interact with and assist blind people in the context of future urban travel. This is a new project funded by NSF so we don’t have a lot of results yet, but you can follow our work on our website.

HtU: Are there places—conferences, conventions, online spaces, etc.—where roboticists talk about the future of work & what role they/you play in creating it?

Dias: Yes – this is an integral topic that many roboticists discuss both formally and informally – mostly under the banner of the ethics of robotics.  Here are some resources:

Robot Ethics (MIT edition)

Robot Futures

Robot Ethics (IEEE edition)

Center for Law & Society–Robotics (Stanford)

Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group (CalPoly)

Ethics & Robotics (CMU)

HtU: What are some jobs that might be created in the future, using tech that you are working on now?

Dias: I think the technology we are collectively building will lead to a lot more (primarily “technician” and service category) jobs where the job will entail things like calibrating robots (you’ll already see some of this in the medical industry with the higher end technology being used for things like imaging and surgery), overseeing teams of robots (this could be in security, agriculture, construction, etc.), deciding the rules and regulations for technology and robots (law and philosophy), working with robots to accomplish complex tasks (surgeons are already doing this with complex surgeries), designing, fabricating, programming, servicing, marketing, and distributing robots, and much more 🙂

HtU: What are some of the ethical questions that are raised in your work, that civilians may not think about?

Dias: Some of the questions I wrestle with are how can we use technology to empower the disempowered? Or how can technology make society more inclusive? Or how can technology enable people with disabilities to lead more independent lives and increase their safety? Or what are the cultural implications of introducing a technology into a community and who should be a part of the decision of whether or not to introduce that technology and how can these decision makers be empowered to make informed choices?  We also think about the environmental consequences of the technology we build and the tradeoffs we have to make between environmental, societal, cultural, economical, and practical considerations.

HtU: What’s the one thing that you wish people who don’t work with automated technology knew about robots?

Dias: 🙂 Hmmm…It’s tough to pick one thing.  I guess I wish mostly that they knew real robots are not necessarily what you see in the movies (especially the blockbuster movies). We have been seeing more of a shift with the general public view of robots though.  We used to get visitors who always expected to see robots that looked like the Terminator. Now we get a wider variety of expectations and my son and his classmates assembled their first robot at the age of 2 with their daycare educators ((using a kit they bought from Amazon). These kids at the age of 3 now will tell you that robots come in many forms with wheels and legs and wings etc. We also had a blind teacher in a small school for blind childrern in India ask us for a robot that could help her carry her things around 🙂  So perceptions are certainly changing! Robots, just like any other technology or machine or fashion trend are really what we make of them.  So we just have to make sure we include all the relevant voices in the discussions of what we should do with robots and make the best informed and inclusive decisions we can so that humans can be safer, have more flexibility in work location, spend their time doing more interesting things, and accomplish previously impossible things using the technology we build. Roboticists always talk about robots that tackle the 3 D’s: Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous tasks.

Robots vs. Apps: What’s an Organizer To Do?

When I started writing this blog, around this time last year, I wanted to get more folks in the economic justice community thinking about technology, and the ways it is changing work. Historically, the labor movement has been painted as a foe of technological change, and I didn’t (and still don’t) think that’s an accurate picture. But I also get that the rapid pace of technological change makes all but the most tech-savvy nervous, at times. And those times seem to be increasing.

In the intervening year, it feels to me as if this topic has gotten a lot more coverage in the mainstream, particularly when it comes to the apps of the sharing economy. There was a little worry, a year ago, about Uber and what it might do to the taxi industry–but there hadn’t been, yet, local government taking action against the company (or Lyft, or any of the other big ride-sharing apps). There was some concern about what AirBnB might mean for hotels, but there hadn’t yet been regulatory action pushing them to pay taxes, or to protect their users. It feels, now, like we are starting to have more of a conversation about the gig economy and what it means for workers today–and I’m happy to have played some very small role in that conversation.

But I’m also worried that we haven’t started yet having the bigger conversation, which to my mind is not about apps, but robots. I’m going to use the term “robot” here pretty broadly–basically meaning any mechanization of work that was formerly done by humans.

If you haven’t yet watched this video that was linked in this week’s newsletter, go do it.

Our movement can be great at reacting–and it’s easy to feel, in the light of so many challenges that face us RIGHT NOW that we don’t have bandwidth to think about what might happen in ten, fifteen or twenty years. But if we don’t, who will be worrying about the impact of widespread job displacement on workers of all kinds?

Next month, as my own celebration of the US’s Labor Day, I’m hosting a tweet chat about robots and work. Please join me–8 pm Eastern, Monday 9/1/14. #robotwork will be the hashtag.