Scenario: Smart Wristbands

Constanze Kurz, Stefan Ullrich

Vicky works in the IT department of a medical supply company. While the firm initially employed only a small ten-member team, it has grown tremendously in the past two years and seen a three-fold increase in staff. Vicky’s been promoted and now oversees her own team of six co-workers. She is a computer scientist and her job at the company consists primarily of implementing hands-on solutions to hardware problems.

Last year, she and her team developed and delivered wristbands with integrated chips to a large chain of rehab clinics. The chips were designed for user access to clinic facilities as well as to remind patients to take their meds using vibrations. Vicky’s team created the hardware, but other departments within the company were responsible for developing the software and installing it at various locations in the chain of clinics. The collaboration went well, and only exceeded the budget for billable hours by a slim margin.

Vicky feels great going into her next project because it involves the same technology they developed for the clinic chain. Coincidentally, she was the one who actually landed the deal through personal contact with a pastor named Ferdinand. The new client, CARE-ful, operates multiple church-sponsored educational and residential care facilities. But the client has decided against using wristbands, so Vicky needs to come up with a new hardware solution. Following a client presentation of the wristbands for the clinic, representatives of CARE-ful and contact people from the church asked for different hardware. Vicky heard that one concern was that the children would quickly destroy the wristbands.

After site visits to two of the facilities, the team that would be installing chip readers and software in the buildings suggested that they simply use the children’s uniforms. Enrico, head of the software team, met with Vicky to discuss the idea of placing chips in the kids’ collars. She gave the go-ahead and they began planning.

Vicky’s company was thrilled with the idea because it allowed them to offer CARE-ful a complete system: new classes and cohorts of students would be issued standard uniforms equipped with waterproof chips. The uniforms currently in use would be retrofitted with chips placed beneath the collars. A simple Velcro design would be used to remove the chip when the uniform needed cleaning. Should parents accidentally throw the chip in the wash, it was easily replaced—for a fee, of course!

Not only that, but they were only steps away from barrier-free accessibility—and that would immediately open the door to another much bigger contract: in the coming years, barrier-free entry systems would be installed in all CARE-ful’s buildings so that doors would open automatically any time an authorized chip embedded in a uniform approached. Elevators could also be activated by wheelchairs for students with limited mobility. Vicky’s bosses were over the moon.

Everything was running according to plan, except that communication with Enrico’s software department was sporadic at best. Vicky hadn’t ever worked with Enrico before and was irritated because it wasn’t just Enrico—his whole team seemed to work in their own little bubble. Communication between them was sparse. Many an email went unanswered, and tickets sent to the company’s internal system were simply left unresolved. Vicky had little concrete evidence that Enrico’s team wasn’t working on schedule, and she actually preferred less communication and fewer meetings over too much and too many.

But then, only six weeks before the new system was scheduled for launch in the first school, Vicky received a weird message sent to her private email address. While rushing to get home—having just picked up and inspected the first of the new school uniforms with integrated chips—she was feeling upbeat. Until she found a message from Pastor Ferdinand on her cell phone. They’d arranged a private meeting for the following week which he canceled abruptly in the harshest of terms.

Vicky was rather taken aback and called the pastor the next day to ask him what was up. Ferdinand’s voice was cold: “I’m disappointed that you would betray my trust this way. I would never consent to this! You should have told me that you were planning to construct this kind of surveillance apparatus behind my back, and then make the parents pay for extra services no less.”

Vicky was floored: what on earth was Ferdinand talking about? She called a meeting, but Enrico objected, saying they were under too much stress already to waste time on meetings. His team was on schedule, all the technical interfaces were in place as requested, and he saw no reason to pull everyone away from their work at this stage in the game. What for? Enrico’s team always had to travel halfway across town to attend meetings because their departments were located in different parts of the city.

Vicky has known Roswita for several years. Since Roswita is a member of Enrico’s team now, Vicky tries to contact her, but doesn’t reach her until after hours. And that’s when she first discovers, much to her chagrin, that Enrico’s has sold CARE-FUL a software package that tracks all the kids in uniform throughout the day and all over campus. The package even includes an additional function that sends notifications to parents’ or teachers’ cell phones telling them where the children are and when. Vicky’s team never discussed this, and she never would have agreed to anything remotely like it! Now what should she do?


  • Is it OK to simply re-purpose a keyless entry system that was developed for adult patients as a tracking system for children? Wouldn’t you have to first discuss the ethical issues? What would these be?
  • Even though her job was to concern herself with hardware solutions, should Vicky have been more proactive about the software implementation? Why should she? It’s not her problem, is it? Can’t she simply claim that her job is to develop the basic technology, that the surveillance application was developed by another team?
  • Does it make a difference that the children’s parents consented to the tracking? What if some of the parents and/or teachers had been against it? Would selective tracking—activated only for the parents who wanted it—be an acceptable solution?
  • The monitoring technology at issue here was also developed as a way to remind (adult) patients to take their meds. How does this positive outcome impact the ethical considerations concerning the same technology used as a surveillance mechanism?
  • Is the informal way that Vicky obtained information about the software team’s work acceptable?
  • Does Vicky owe Pastor Ferdinand any special consideration because he is the one who initially brokered the contract and is now angry? Is that her problem?
  • Is it enough for Vicky to insist that procedural measures be taken to ensure that the surveillance is only use in justifiable exceptions? What would constitute a “justifiable exception”?
  • Who should Vicky talk to about this problem? Management? The church? Data protection services? The public?
  • Vicky is head of an entire team and wants to keep advancing at this company. Should she allow this to influence her decision?

Published in Informatik Spektrum 41(4), 2018, S. 285-287.

Translated from German by Lillian M. Banks.

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