Texting Monitors: Greater Safety, or Big Brother?

Published September 29, 2011

An employee is driving an employer’s fleet vehicle and glances away from the road to text a message. A crash occurs, a victim’s family sues, and said employer pays millions of dollars in damages.

A preventable loss? Definitely, says Matt Howard, cofounder and chief executive officer of ZoomSafer.com, which in 2010 developed FleetSafer Mobile and FleetSafer Vision, software aimed at enhancing driver safety while lowering risks for employers and businesses. Auto insurance companies are also beginning to use this and similar technology to offer insurance premiums based on an idividual’s actual driving habits.

Howard discussed the vehicle safety, privacy, and insurance issues of this growing technology with FIRE Policy News.

FIRE: How does this technology work?

Howard: It’s really pretty simple. If you’re an employer and have employees driving company vehicles, using company phones, it’s a very big risk. So we created software for Smartphones and for commercial fleet operators so employers could prevent employees from texting while driving.

We have two products. FleetSafer Mobile is the active policy control. FleetSafer Vision is the passive policy control.

FIRE: What’s the difference between the two?

Howard: When you have the active product, you are literally installing a piece of software on a Blackberry or Android, and when the driver pushes the pedal, the software knows you’re driving. The phone then enters safe mode and locks the screen, locks the keypad, and it may, if the employer so chooses, prevent the employee from entering the phone capability.

For example, say I’m an employer and I have hazardous material I need my employees to transport. I don’t want them using their phones for anything while they’re driving. Nothing— no texts, no telephone calls. So I lock their phones entirely.

But maybe I want my sales force to make phone calls, so I only lock their phones from texting. That’s your business, not mine. I don’t define company policy.

FIRE: What’s to prevent an employee from bringing a second phone—one without software—on the road and texting or calling?

Howard: That’s entirely possible. But in that case, the employer would be entirely freed from worker’s compensation. If an employee brings a second cell phone and is texting at the time of the crash, the company might get sued, … but it’s not [legally] liable.

Look, there is no silver bullet. This is about allowing employers to take steps that really change a person’s behavior. But if people are hellbent on breaking a policy, they’re going to do it. Our software has tamper-resistant technology, though, so you can tell if someone is trying to disable it.

FIRE: Where does all this collected information go?

Howard: It goes in a database that’s accessible by the employer with a user name and password, and the data is subject to, and compliant with, industry best practices from a piracy standpoint.

FIRE: How long is this data stored?

Howard: It depends on the employer’s requirements.

FIRE: How does the second product work?

Howard: You heard about the active solution, which only works for Smart phones. But what about employers who don’t want to do active policy controls? They can apply FleetSafer Vision, passive policy controls, instead. If the employer can tell me that they keep track of the vehicle throughout the day, and they can tell who’s driving it, … as long as they can give that data, I can go to the phone company, with a letter of authorization from the employer, and get the billing data. I can then produce empirical data for the employer based on phone calls and texting.

It doesn’t tell who employees were talking to or who was called. All it shows is there was a message sent at a particular time, or a call placed.

FIRE: What privacy concerns have arisen?

Howard: Texting while you drive a company car, using a company phone, is not your private business. That’s not my opinion. It’s backed by years and years of case law. If you’re using the company’s car, and using the Blackberry or Android or I-Phone the company gave you, and the company’s paying for it, it’s not private.

FIRE: What about accessing the employee’s phone records?

Howard: Obviously, we’re in a gray area here. But in every case, you can only do this [according] to the letter of the law. The employee must opt in to share the information. I have one client who makes the accessing of cell phone data a condition of employment.

FIRE: Are there any unintended civil rights compromises that could come from this technology? Say, police bypassing normal and legal processes to obtain information on drivers?

Howard: No.

FIRE: And what about insurance companies—do you target sales to them? Will this technology, in the end, change insurance costs for customers?

Howard: Yes, we do sell to insurance companies. Insurance carriers have a very long history of studying behavioral data and mining that data, … and we think the data we’re collecting is very valuable to underwriters in determining risk, for example. They will be able to more accurately price their insurance, … and that could bring better prices to consumers.