A “Romware Covid Radius bracelet” beeps every time a Tata Steel Ltd. worker in the U.K. or a docker at Belgium’s Antwerp port is within virus-catching distance of someone. At Bouygues SA construction sites and in Sanofi and Schneider Electric SE offices in France employees enter after thermal cameras check their temperatures. Invisible lasers will manage crowds at shopping malls and transport hubs in Spain and France, and some firms will use infection-tracing lanyard devices.
As Europeans head back to work, they’re entering a world very different from the one they left. Workplaces from banks and offices to e-commerce warehouses, factories, sports clubs and airports are trying out or installing fever-testing thermal cameras, mask-detection systems and tracking software to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus that has claimed more than 167,000 lives in the region.
The virus has opened the doors to surveillance and monitoring technologies that many fear are here to stay. While such systems have been creeping into people’s lives across the globe — particularly in Asia, with China’s facial-recognition points system and South Korea’s invasive infection-tracking software — the trend runs up against Europe’s much-vaunted privacy culture. Europeans trading in privacy for safety now may find the longer-term consequences unacceptable.
“The use of mass surveillance infrastructures can lead to a normalization of these highly intrusive tools, and the hasty introduction of apps, devices and cameras will, in the long term, lead to a dissolution of trust between employers and employees,” said Ella Jakubowska, a researcher at internet rights association Edri.
Businesses are walking a fine line between keeping people safe and protecting their privacy. The absence of clear guidance from European regulators is forcing companies — who could also be on the hook if they don’t sufficiently protect workers — to make “extremely difficult decisions,” according to Daniel Cooper, a partner at law firm Covington and Burling, who advises clients on tech regulation.
“The exposure of companies collecting that information goes up because it’s sensitive,” Cooper said. “They also have to balance the privacy rights of the people whose data they’re collecting and get that balance right and not break the law.”
About 23% of companies surveyed globally are considering workplace tracking or contact tracing to transition back to on-site work, according to a study published this month by tax and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is testing its own contact tracing tool in its Shanghai office.
“As lockdown is lifted, the turn to contact tracing may add a whole new layer of data being accumulated about where we go and what we do,” Andrew Pakes, research director at U.K. Trade union Prospect, wrote in a blog post Tuesday, adding that “the worry in many quarters is that we could be sleepwalking into further surveillance without safeguards in place.”
Providers of such monitoring technologies tout them as a safe way to get people back to work and revive economies crushed by lockdowns. While many acknowledge the …read more