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COVID-19 tech will fail without employee privacy

Businesses can choose from a growing number of mobile apps and Wi-Fi software to protect workers from COVID-19. But tech won't succeed without top-of-the-line privacy protection.

Companies that plan to use technology to protect employees against COVID-19 as they return to work should be ultrasensitive to privacy to avoid resistance that could derail the effort, experts said.

Businesses should evaluate products carefully to determine whether privacy protections satisfy workers, as well as regulators. Those safeguards become imperative when companies use the technology to track employees for contact tracing after a worker catches the virus.

For example, Aruba, Cisco and Juniper Networks pitch their cloud-based Wi-Fi software to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet, the vendors have not clearly defined how their systems would comply with federal privacy regulations. The two laws tech buyers would have to consider carefully are the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

"At some point, those vendors do have access to information," said Reda Chouffani, co-founder of healthcare informatics consultancy Biz Technology Solutions. "There's always risks that their engineers will access either backups or drives or storage."

Success depends on employee privacy protections

Making privacy the priority is critical because a deployment can't be successful unless employees believe that the personal data companies gather doesn't go beyond the fight against COVID-19.

Edgar NdjatouEdgar Ndjatou

A company has the right to use technology to ensure a safe workplace. However, "you still have to win employee trust," said Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of the advocacy group Workplace Fairness.

Without worker buy-in, employees are likely to find subtle ways to resist a company's tracking efforts. "There will be this invisible erosion of productivity," said Lewis Maltby, who heads the National Workrights Institute.

A consumer poll released this week indicates the tech industry has much work to do in building trust. An online survey of 12,000 people across six countries found that most Americans are uncomfortable with having personal information gathered to help contain COVID-19.

According to the survey conducted by Juniper Research, more than half of Americans objected explicitly to the collection of location data. Okta, a company that provides a service for connecting securely to online applications, commissioned the study.

Microsoft's COVID-19 and employee privacy plans

Microsoft plans to have an "attestation app" for all its U.S. employees who return to offices over the coming months, company president Brad Smith said. Microsoft is developing the technology in partnership with UnitedHealth Group.

In general, the app would confirm that employees were virus-free each day they entered the office, Smith said. He did not provide details on how the app would work but said any employer could use it.

The company is also considering contact-tracing technology, Smith said during an online interview this week at the Collision tech conference. However, "we don't see an app-based approach as a silver bullet."

"It's not going to eliminate the need for even the role of humans who are working as contact tracers," he said.

We believe, in fact, we can put technology to work in a way that can advance public health goals and protect privacy at the same time.
Brad SmithPresident, Microsoft

Whatever technology a company uses will have to conform to Microsoft's seven privacy principles, which include minimal data collection for public health purposes.

"We believe, in fact, we can put technology to work in a way that can advance public health goals and protect privacy at the same time," Smith said.

Getting employee support

Cameron Hutchinson, president and founder of labor consultancy Hutchinson Group, recommended that before launching any technology, companies form an in-house committee comprising representatives of labor, human resources, management and the legal team.

Organizations should take employee input seriously and use it to fine-tune policies on the use of any technology for combating COVID-19. Companies should use employee concerns to create an FAQ with the company's response to worker questions.

"That helps to eliminate rumors," Hutchinson said.

Also, an organization should seriously consider abandoning any technology that doesn't win employee approval. "If it turns out that the committee recommends not to move forward, then I think the company should listen to them," he said.

Next Steps

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