Privacy at risk in tech-infused post-COVID-19 workplace
Published: Feb 22, 2021 06:43 PM
People returning to work following the long pandemic will find an array of tech-infused gadgetry to improve workplace safety but which could pose risks to long-term personal and medical privacy.

A member of staff at the University of Bolton has his body temperature checked by an automatic walk-through scanner to help to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, as he enters a campus building in Bolton, northern England, the UK, on September 16, 2020. Photo: AFP

Everything from temperature checks to distance monitors, digital "passports," wellness surveys, and robotic cleaning and disinfection systems are just some of the technologies being deployed in many workplaces seeking to reopen. Tech giants and startups are offering solutions that include computer vision detection of vital signs to "wearables," which can offer early indications of the onset of COVID-19 and accompanying apps that keep track of health metrics.

Salesforce and IBM have partnered on a "digital health pass" to let people share their vaccination and health status on their smartphones.

Clear - a tech startup known for airport screening - has created its own health pass which is being used by organizations such as the National Hockey League and MGM Resorts.

Fitbit, the wearable tech maker recently acquired by Google, has its own "Ready for Work" program that includes daily check-ins using data from its devices.

Fitbit is equipping some 1,000 NASA employees with "wearables" as part of a pilot program that requires a daily log-in using various health metrics which will be tracked by the space agency.

Microsoft and insurance giant United HealthCare have deployed a ProtectWell app that includes a daily symptom screener, while Amazon has deployed a "distance assistant" in its warehouses to help employees maintain social distancing. And a large coalition of technology firms and health organizations are working on a digital vaccination certificate, which can be used on smartphones to show evidence of inoculation against COVID-19.

'Blurs the line' 

With these systems in place, employees may be subjected to screenings even as they enter a building lobby, and continued monitoring in elevators, hallways, and throughout the workplace. The monitoring "blurs the line between people's workplace and personal lives," said Darrell West, a Brookings Institution vice president with the think tank's Center for Technology Innovation.

"It erodes longstanding medical privacy protections for many different workers."

A report by the consumer activist group Public Citizen in 2020 identified at least 50 apps and technologies released during the pandemic "marketed as workplace surveillance tools to combat COVID-19."

The report said some systems go so far as to identify people who may not spend enough time at the sink to note poor hand-washing.

"The invasion of privacy that workers face is alarming, especially considering that the effectiveness of these technologies in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has not yet been established," the report said.

The group said there should be clear guidelines on the collection and storage of data, with greater disclosure to employees.

A balancing act 

Employers face challenges trying to strike a delicate balance as they try to ensure workplace safety without infringing on the right to privacy, said Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization at the Pennsylvania State University.

Briscoe said there are legitimate reasons and precedents for requiring proof of vaccination. But these sometimes conflict with medical privacy regulations which limit a company's access to employee health data.

"You don't want the employer accessing that information for work-related decisions," Briscoe said, adding that many employers rely on third-party tech vendors to handle the monitoring of health data, but that has its risks as well. 

"Using third-party vendors will keep the data separate," he said. "But for some companies, their business model involves gathering data and using it for some monetizable purposes and that poses a risk to privacy."

The global health crisis has inspired startups around the world to seek innovative ways to curb virus transmission, with a variety of products shown at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Drone maker Draganfly showcased camera technology which can be used to offer alerts on social distancing, and also detect changes in people's vital signs which may be early indicators of COVID-19 infection.

A programmable robot from Misty Robotics, also shown at CES, can be adapted as a health check monitor and can also be designed to disinfect frequently used surfaces like door handles, according to the company. But there are risks in relying too heavily on technologies that may be as yet unproven or inefficacious, such as trying to detect fevers with thermal cameras among moving people, said Jay Stanley, a privacy researcher and analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.
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