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Employee IDs: A Small Symbol of Security

Workers say the inconvenience of wearing badges is a small price to pay for peace of mind.


At the office building in midtown Manhattan where Lisa Ciriello works in technology support, security guards have routinely since Sept. 11 searched her handbag. For security reasons, all entrances but one have been closed. And recently, the building's owners required all tenants to provide identification badges for their employees.

For Ciriello's firm, Odyssey Investment Partners, which employs about 25 people on the 38th floor, the measure was a first. Everyone knows each other; there had never before been a need for name tags. The company had to get badges in a hurry, however, and Ciriello was asked to take care of things. She scoured the Internet until she found Mike Helmuth, owner of a Seattle-based company that specializes in badge systems. Three hundred dollars and three days later, everyone at Odyssey had a corporate badge.

And no one complained.

"It's a tiny, tiny price to pay," Ciriello said earlier this month, having just come back to her desk after a bomb-scare evacuation. Like many employees, Ciriello welcomes the badges as a measure that increases her personal safety, a way to gauge who belongs and who doesn't.

After the terror attacks, many companies reviewed their security policies and decided that along with increased mail inspection in the face of anthrax scares, they would institute an identification badge system. Badges--or "access control," in the jargon of the industry--represent roughly a quarter of the multibillion-dollar-and-growing corporate security business.

The badges range in sophistication. Some simply identify employees, some act as key cards allowing passage into garages and through turnstiles. Some badges even allow employers to track employee movement.

Whether badges do more than give an illusion of security is a matter of debate. Employees, however, seem to be donning them with little complaint, insisting that whatever they've lost in convenience, couture or even privacy, they've gained in peace of mind.

Gary Murphy, who works in the publicity department of the Los Angeles Opera, said he has noticed more people wearing badges to work downtown. "There's a heightened sense of safety, and of brotherhood with other badge-wearers," said Murphy. "Seeing other people with ID badges, in essence you form a camaraderie with them." Murphy is required to wear his badge at work and has no objections. "I like it," he said. "It's a badge that tells the world who you are, and where you work."

Sometimes, a badge can be a conversation piece. "People will come up to you, look at your badge and say, "Oh, where are you from? The lamination on yours is so much nicer."

Besides helping form bonds with strangers, the corporate badge can enhance esprit de corps, said Gary T. Marx, a visiting sociology professor at Berkeley, who is teaching a course on society and surveillance there. "It's a logo, in a sense."

Some function as status symbols. Color, for example, can signify an employee's position within a company. "They are not only about getting the job done, but about differentiating among people," he said. "It's like wearing a sign: 'I'm important, or not."'

The low-tech cards, said Lars Suneborn, a government program manager at Hirsch Electronics in Irvine, "give a sense of security, but that security is dependent on peer pressure--that other people watch that you have the correct badge, and challenge you if there's something wrong." Easy to duplicate, they are "security window dressing," he said.

Badges at the high-tech end offer more chilling capabilities than simply elucidating the pecking order. Some cards have "internal location devices" emitting low-frequency radio signals indicating the whereabouts of an employee. If someone has stepped away from a desk, incoming telephone calls can automatically follow that person to the nearest phone. Or if office equipment is stolen, it will be fairly easy to determine who was nearby at the time. "People in the bowels of the controls will know where everybody is at a given moment," said Marx.

The technology is used by the Olivetti company and at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, said Marx, adding that trucking companies also employ location devices to track their drivers. "This is simply another [example of] organizational control over individuals." For Rentokil, an international company that provides services to corporate customers including cleaning, pest control, parcel delivery and catering, instituting badges was a matter of reassuring customers. In the U.S., more than 800 Rentokil workers walk through office buildings daily. Following Sept. 11, many of them were suddenly being asked for IDs they did not have, even at offices they'd been visiting for years, said Kenneth Brewer, a national technology manager for the company.

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