Temperature controls, detectors ensuring physical distancing is respected, digital health ‘passports’, well-being surveys and robotic cleaning systems have flourished in the workplace since the pandemic, as companies are looking to bring their employees back to the office.
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But in the long run, these technological gadgets could pose risks to privacy and medical confidentiality.
Tech giants and start-ups offer a host of solutions that include visual detection of vital signs by computer, wearable devices that can give early indications of the onset of COVID-19, not to mention the multiple applications that monitor health parameters.
Salesforce and IBM have teamed up to launch a “digital health pass” that allows people, via their smartphones, to share proof of vaccination and their medical condition.
Another system, invented by Clear, a startup known for airport screening, created its own health pass, already used by the National Hockey League and MGM Resorts.
Fitbit, the specialist in connected objects, and owned by Google, has a program called “Ready to work” which includes daily vital signs recordings using data from its devices.
Microsoft and US health insurance giant United Healthcare have deployed a ProtectWell app that includes daily symptom screening, while Amazon has deployed a “remote assistant” in its own warehouses to help employees maintain distances from security.
With these systems, employees are monitored as soon as they enter a building lobby, elevator, hallway, and any workplace.
Surveillance “blurs the line between work and home life,” said Darrell West, vice president at the Brookings Institution. “It erodes the protections of medical confidentiality for many workers.”
A report released last year by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen identified at least 50 apps and technologies launched during the pandemic, which have been “marketed as workplace monitoring tools to combat against COVID-19 ”.
The report says some systems, designed to identify improper hand washing, go so far as to identify people who do not spend enough time in front of a sink.
The report says some systems, designed to identify improper hand washing, go so far as to identify people who do not spend enough time at a sink.
“The intrusion into privacy faced by workers is alarming, especially since the effectiveness of these technologies in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has yet to be established,” the report said.
Employers struggle with a delicate balance: ensuring workplace safety, but without invading privacy, observes Forrest Briscoe, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
While there are legitimate reasons, he says, for requiring proof of vaccination, they sometimes conflict with medical confidentiality regulations, which limit a company’s access to employee health data.
“You don’t want the employer to access this information for work-related decisions,” he says.
Granted, “using third-party vendors keeps data separate,” the expert added, “but for some of these tech companies, their business model involves collecting data and using it for monetizable purposes, which presents a risk to privacy ”.
The last major consumer electronics event, the Consumer Electronics Show 2021, was teeming with innovations from start-ups around the world seeking to limit the transmission of viruses. Taiwan-based FaceHeart, for example, showcased software that can be installed in cameras to measure vital signs and screen for shortness of breath, fever, dehydration, high heart rate.
But there are risks when you trust technologies which, moreover, can prove to be inaccurate, underlines Jay Stanley, analyst with the powerful association of defense of the civil rights ACLU.
“Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting workplaces and keeping employees healthy in the context of the pandemic,” says this expert. “But what worries me is that employers are using the pandemic to collect and store information in a systematic way, beyond what is necessary.”