High-tech workplace surveillance: New report warns of dystopian mass surveillance amid COVID-19

“The speed at which these new privacy-shredding technologies have been unleashed is alarming, especially given that none of them have been proven to be effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

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New workplace surveillance tools being used by employers to track and trace employees in an effort to combat COVID-19 institute dystopian mass surveillance, a new report suggests. Conducted by Public Citizen, the report found these apps pose a threat to employees’ privacy.

There are more than 50 apps, wearables and other technologies marketed and released as workplace surveillance tools since the start of the pandemic, a press release stated. With more than 32 companies currently using one of these technologies, there are currently 340,000 employers forced to “either accede to dystopian levels of surveillance or risk losing their jobs.”

“The default setting of most workplace surveillance apps is mass surveillance by design,” Burcu Kilic, digital rights program director for Public Citizen and author of the report, said. “The speed at which these new privacy-shredding technologies have been unleashed is alarming, especially given that none of them have been proven to be effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

Employees’ rights are in jeopardy because the technologies are tracking, monitoring and collecting personal data and sharing it with employers creating new cybersecurity risks, a press release stated. Some of the technologies are even bypassing the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPPA) health information privacy provisions.

“In a work setting, where activities are governed by a contractual or power relationship, many workers must either accept the new high-tech workplace surveillance or risk losing their jobs,” the report said. “Without sufficient government regulation and guidelines, employers using these technologies are invading workers’ privacy to varying degrees.”

How it works

Employees download the technologies’ mobile app onto their phones where they are directed to periodically fill out a survey of self-reported medical information, such as any COVID-19 symptoms and temperature, which is then viewable by employers. While some wearables are tracking employees’ locations to identify and encourage behaviors (such as time spent washing their hands), a press release stated, other apps send COVID-19 diagnostic test results directly to employers bypassing employees altogether.

“From an employer’s perspective, this rapid deployment is driven mainly by the urge to bring workers back to the workplace,” the report stated.

But the rate at which these technologies have been introduced is alarming, Public Citizen said.

Privacy-violating features

No matter which technology, Public Citizen warns against workplace surveillance threatening employees privacy. According to the report, some of these privacy-violating features include:

ProtectWell by Microsoft and UnitedHealth

  • “Employers can direct their workers to a streamlined COVID-19 testing process that enables closed-loop ordering and reporting of test results directly back to employers.
    – Microsoft Press Release
  • “Any information disclosed to us in connection with the Site and the ProtectWell App is not protected health information, as defined under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (‘HIPAA’)…”
    – ProtectWell Privacy Policy
  • “We may obtain additional information about you from third parties such as marketers, partners, researchers, and others. We may combine information that we collect from you with information about you that we obtain from such third parties and information derived from any other subscription, product, or service we provide.”
    – ProtectWell Privacy Policy

Healthcheck by Stratum

  • “Our workers and agents may view your Personal Information…
    – Healthcheck Privacy Policy
  • “If you are accessing on a mobile device, we will automatically collect personal data including device, content and usage data… We also collect IP address access location to determine your current location…”
    – Healthcheck Privacy Policy

COVID-19 Worker Safety and Business Continuity Tracker by Pegasystems

  • “Your personal information may be transferred, processed and stored outside the country where your information was collected by using or attending a Service…”
    – Pegasystems Privacy Notice

Congress looks to address privacy concerns

According to Common Dreams, Virigina was the first state to use a statewide Covid-19 tracking app in early August and Arizona could be next. But lawmakers in Congress have proposed at least three bills to protect American’s privacy rights with COVID contact-tracing apps.

“As we continue to confront the coronavirus pandemic, Americans should not have to worry about the privacy and security of their personal health data,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a main sponsor of the Exposure Notification Privacy Act, said. “While contact tracing can play a critical role in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, this crucial innovation cannot come at the expense of consumers’ privacy.”

Public Citizen is urging employers “take caution to fully vet the technologies being used” to “ensure the utmost privacy and confidentiality at the workplace,” while calling on government to establish sufficient regulation and guidelines to help protect employees’ privacy rights.

“The invasion of privacy that workers face is alarming, especially considering that the effectiveness of these technologies in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has not yet been established,” the report stated.

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