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‘Blurred Lines’: Privacy is a risk in the post-Covid tech-filled workplace

WASHINGTON: People returning to work after the prolonged pandemic will find a suite of tech-enabled tools to improve workplace safety but may pose long-term personal and medical privacy risks.

Temperature checks, distance monitors, digital “passport” surveys, and automated cleaning and disinfection systems are being deployed in many workplaces seeking to reopen.

Tech giants and startups offer solutions that include computer vision detection of vital signs of wearables that could provide early indications of the emergence of Covid-19 and apps that track health metrics.

Salesforce and IBM signed up for a Digital Health Card to allow people to share vaccinations and health status on their smartphones.

Clear, a tech startup known to screen airports, has created its own health card that organizations like the National Hockey League and MGM Resorts use.

Fitbit, the manufacturer of the wearable technology that Google recently acquired, has its own “ready-to-work” program that includes daily check-ins using data from its devices.

Fitbit is providing about 1,000 NASA employees with wearable devices as part of a pilot program that requires daily logins using various health metrics that the space agency will follow.

Microsoft and insurance giant United HealthCare have deployed the ProtectWell app that includes a daily symptom screening tool, and Amazon has deployed a Distance Assist in its warehouse to help employees maintain safe distances.

A large coalition of technology companies and health organizations are working on a digital certificate of vaccination, which can be used on smartphones to show evidence of vaccination for Covid-19.

Blurs the lines

With these systems, employees may face checks even when entering the building foyer, and being monitored in elevators, corridors, and throughout the workplace.

Daryl West, vice president of the Brookings Institution at the Research Center’s Center for Technology Innovation, said surveillance “blurs the line between where people work and their personal lives.”

“It undermines the long-term medical privacy protections of many different workers.”

A report released last year by consumer activist group Public Citizen identified at least 50 apps and technologies released during the pandemic that “were marketed as workplace surveillance tools to combat Covid-19”.

The report said that some regulations go so far as to identify people who may not spend enough time in front of the sink to notice insufficient hand-washing.

“The invasion of privacy that workers face is alarming, especially given that the effectiveness of these technologies in curbing the spread of Covid-19 has yet to be determined,” the report said.

The group said there should be clear rules about data collection and storage, with better employee disclosure.

Delicate balance

Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization at Pennsylvania State University, said employers face a delicate balance as they try to ensure workplace safety without interfering with privacy.

Briscoe said there are legitimate grounds and precedents for requesting proof of vaccination. But these sometimes conflict with medical privacy regulations that limit the company’s access to employee health data.

“You don’t want the employer to have access to that information to make business decisions,” Briscoe said.

Bisco said that many employers rely on outside technology vendors to handle monitoring, but that has its risks as well.

“Using external vendors will keep the data separate,” he said.

“But for some companies, their business model includes collecting and using data for a specific purpose that can be monetized and this poses a privacy risk.”

The global health crisis has inspired startups around the world to search for innovative ways to reduce virus transmission, with some of these products on display at CES 2021.

Taiwan-based FaceHeart software that can be mounted in cameras to measure vital signs without contact has shown to detect shortness of breath, high fever, dehydration, high heart rate and other symptoms that are early indicators of Covid-19.

Drone manufacturer Draganfly has demonstrated camera technology that can be used to provide alerts about social distancing, as well as detect changes in people’s vital signs that could be early indicators of Covid-19 infection.

A programmable robot from Misty Robotics, which is also appearing at CES, can be adapted as a hygienic screening screen and can also be designed to disinfect frequently used surfaces such as door handles, according to the company.

There are risks of relying too much on technologies that may be unproven or inaccurate, such as trying to spot a fever with thermal cameras among people on the move, said Jay Stanley, a privacy researcher and analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting workplaces and maintaining employee health in the context of a pandemic,” Stanley said.

“But what worries me is that employers are using the pandemic to extract and store information in a systematic way that goes beyond what is necessary to protect health.”

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