Protecting privacy in a pandemic

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Protecting privacy in a pandemic

With lockdowns lifting, businesses are scrambling to find solutions that allow them to reopen their factories, banks, offices and other workplaces while preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Many are turning to technology—from fever-detecting thermal cameras and buzzing social-distancing bracelets to corporate contact-tracing apps—to screen employees or track the virus. About 23% of companies surveyed globally are considering workplace tracking or contact tracing to transition back to on-site work, according to a recent study by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But as the systems access sensitive personal data like health, location or information about who employees interact with, it opens up a whole set of other potential problems for employers, especially in Europe.

Office floors have been devoid of staff since the U.K. lockdown started.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

In the European Union, data protection violations could lead to fines of as much as 4% of a company's annual sales under the bloc's privacy rules. Meanwhile, breaches of employment laws could bring penalties or, in rare cases, jail time for executives, if they're found to have insufficiently protected workers' safety.

Manufacturers of the systems acknowledge Covid-screening technology isn't foolproof but say the devices can at least help mitigate the risk of infection. Meanwhile, privacy advocates warn about the deployment of tech like fever-detection cameras, which could force employees who might have a relatively higher body temperature or fever due to a non-infectious disease to divulge it to their employers against their will.

Those legal risks are compounded by a race against time, lawyers say, with some employers rapidly deploying solutions to reopen workplaces and worrying about the consequences later. A lack of clear guidance by the EU and its regulators about what's acceptable is also making the decisions by the companies that much more difficult.

One Frankfurt-based employment lawyer says it best: "It's a bit like the Wild West."—Natalia Drozdiak

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