Laudator: Prof. Dr. Peter Wedde

The BigBrotherAward 2018 in the “Workplace” category goes to

Soma Analytics UG from Bruckmühl near Munich, represented by their CEO Johann Huber,

for their efforts to propagate their health app “Kelaa” among employees, and place the associated “Kelaa Dashboard” at the human resources departments of companies. Putting employees’ health data in the hands of the employers breaks a taboo. But let us start at the beginning.

Just like many other health apps, the Kelaa app monitors data on its user’s vital functions.

We have been warning about health apps for years. But Soma Analytics takes our disapproval into a new dimension. Anyone can install the Kelaa app on their smartphone. However, it will only work if the user’s employer uses the “Kelaa Dashboard” software. With this software, employers can display their employees’ health data in (quote) “aggregated and anonymised form”. Soma Analytics provides the required data analyses.

But the only purpose of this ménage à trois is to improve health, “of course”: for instance, employees with the Kelaa app on their smartphone will receive information about relaxation techniques when signs of stress are detected by the app. And employers get to know how stressed their employees are. Whether they will use that information to improve working conditions, or simply to lay off employees with “weak nerves”, we can only speculate.

How it works

The smartphone, pivotal work tool and constant companion, collects these sensitive personal data. Many people use this device from waking up in the morning until they fall asleep in the evening. Whoever can read out and evaluate this health data and “stress information” very likely knows more about the owner’s mental and physical state than the owners themselves.

But Soma Analytics is not content with that: the company even tries to collect sensitive data at other times by inviting the users to take the device to bed with them in order to capture movements during sleep. This enables the company to gain insights not only into sleeping habits but incidentally also into cohabitation habits. Whether or not the employees’ partners would appreciate this or consent to it remains to be seen.

Additionally, emotions detectable in the voice during telephone calls are evaluated. The whole thing is completed by the answers to a “self-assessment questionnaire” given to the employee.

Published material about the Kelaa app indicates that the Soma software also evaluates writing and typing behaviour and general smartphone use. Data about how often the user picks up the phone is collected, as well as the time spent looking at the screen.

It is not known whether other data sources are utilised as well, such as a step counter in a health app, or if conversations besides phone calls are also intercepted and evaluated. On the basis of the legal notices on the website, such data collection activities cannot be entirely ruled out. It would rather be a surprise to us if Soma were not making use of this information source.

The effects on employees …

Soma Analytics promises a lot to employees in return for their data. Kelaa is touted like a “magic health bullet”: “When you use the Kelaa app, you will work as efficiently as never before and you will also make your employer happy by an increase in productivity!” The only thing apparently missing is a promise of increased hair growth.

There is no mention by Soma Analytics of possible risks and side effects for the employees, due to them feeling – and rightly so – that their employer is constantly watching them, even at home and while asleep. As the saying goes, being off work is such an outdated concept.

… and on employers

Soma also makes a lot of promises to employers: Using the Kelaa Dashboard supposedly strengthens their decision-making process. It is suggested that employers use Soma’s data sets to identify issues that need improvement, in order to increase the employees’ productivity along with their health.

We say: Soma Analytics is trying to give employers all-encompassing control over the physical and mental condition of their employees. Employer’s are enthusiastic about this and it gives them new ideas, as shown by initial reports from the United Kingdom, where Kelaa has been deployed in a large law firm with more than a thousand employees. The person responsible for utilisation of the Kelaa app found that “the app can show us potentials that we can realise if we and our employees work together on how they sleep.” To make such a thing possible is unequivocally worthy of an award.

According to their own description, Soma Analytics uses Big Data and sophisticated algorithms.

Soma Analytics also mentions that they are supported by leading researchers from the fields of psychology, clinical sleep research and computer science. The names of these renowned researchers are, however, discreetly withheld. And, of course, the design of the algorithms used is not described, either.

Trade Secrets

Maybe these are trade secrets, just like the methods used for the aggregation and anonymisation of the data collected by employees’ smartphones for display in the Dashboard. Nothing can be found on the website about how the anonymisation works or how secure that process is. What makes us suspicious, though, is that at the same time, Soma Analytics offers to identify the most stressful departments in your companies. We can infer from this that the collected information can be linked to smaller units, departments or groups of persons within a company. From there it may only be a small step to identifying an individual employee.

A clear foundation in data protection law for these kinds of evaluations cannot be identified. Soma Analytics use legal notices on their website to grant themselves far-reaching processing permissions. But in Germany it would be required that the employees agree to this kind of processing. This is stipulated by the still (just) applicable Federal Data Protection Law (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz). The Kelaa app disclaimer also does not entail a legally binding approval by the employees to the processing of sensitive personal data. Considering the European General Data Protection Regulation that will come into force on 25 May 2018 with its requirements for an effective agreement, the assessment of the legal situation does not change. On the contrary: Both the old and the new data protection legislation specifically protect the processing of health data. And there is an even stronger protection when an employment relationship is involved.

Distribution

We do not know how successful the business model of Soma Analytics is. Known reports on practical use relate to examples in the United Kingdom and Italy, although the company’s headquarters are in Bruckmühl near Munich. Nothing is known to us about the app’s adoption by German employers – but that is not our point.

Regardless of location, regardless of economic power, regardless of the size of the company, it is the idea behind the Kelaa app that is breaking the taboo. Why do people develop this kind of software? Because they have no sense of moral boundaries. Because “digital first, concerns second” has been used last autumn by the German Liberal Party (FDP) as an advertising slogan and has become socially acceptable in certain circles. Because data protection is not seen as a German virtue and a German export success, but instead as an impediment to business concepts. And because many small start-ups dream that they will be bought out by a global corporation if they exploit Big Data to the fullest extent possible. Red lines are being crossed all the time – this has to end!

The Kelaa debate coincides with the discussion about the use of software in the field of “predictive analysis”. This aims at using voice patterns or other use of technology by employees to derive signs of imminent problems or violations of their contractual obligations to their employer. If similar concepts of permanent and covert automated spying on employees become common practice, this will open up ways for employers to gather knowledge and act on it that Big Brother could only have dreamed of.

If you, as an employee, think it is beneficial for your health to install an app on your smartphone to detect and reduce stress, you are of course free to do that. But make sure that this software does not belong to your employer. By observing this simple rule you will not have to fear a warning from the app’s “stress-o-meter” when your employer goes on talking about needing teams fit for the Olympics, and that therefore the lesser qualified employees need to jump ship.

With that in mind: Congratulations, Soma Analytics UG.

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