Expected boom in workplace health monitoring, clashes with privacy fears

Originally published in Newsday on May 25, 2020.

The issue is emerging so quickly that there aren’t federal standards to oversee it completely. But New York State lawmakers say they’re preparing legislation to begin to tackle it.

Get ready for a clash between health measures and privacy rights when employees begin returning to a workplace where their every single move could be tracked.

Temperature scans, immunity badges, a “bio passport” and even smartphone apps that record all the steps you take are just some of the tools technology companies are gearing up.

Under the goal of protecting public health and limiting further coronavirus outbreaks, software developers and employers are looking at dramatically ramping up workplace surveillance.

That will raise a whole host of issues, legislators and experts said: How accurate is the data? Could inaccurate data result in discrimination? Could the data be sold? Given to law enforcement? Could you be blackballed from work? Or blackmailed by hackers who have stolen your data from your employer?

Will the public adjust to surveillance and dismiss privacy concerns, much in the way it accepted new intrusions for national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?

The issue is emerging so quickly that there aren’t federal standards to oversee it completely. But New York State lawmakers say they’re preparing legislation to begin to tackle it.

“I’ve been thinking about it since the day we shut down,” Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said. “I started seeing a lot of companies foaming at the mouth, thinking how they’re going to make the next buck with the next app that says ‘I’m negative’ or ‘I have the antibodies.’ Even before COVID-19 hit, people have been giving up their privacy and now we have a real health emergency … So we need to move expeditiously on this before it gets out of control.”

Thomas is finalizing a bill that makes a start. He said it would mandate that all health data a company collects on a worker be deleted after 14 days. That would reduce the possibility of it being sold and/or hacked, he said.

“This data shouldn’t be held on a server for long periods of time,” he said.

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