Don’t default to mass surveillance in the workplace

Over the past few months, most Americans have struggled to find toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but there’s been no shortage of solutions from the tech industry aimed at fighting the pandemic, especially solutions marketed to employers.

Remarkably, more than 50 new COVID-19 tracing apps and programs have been released since the pandemic began, according to a new report from Public Citizen. That doesn’t include any of the existing technologies that haven’t changed one iota and now are being marketed as responses to the coronavirus.

Most of these tools are premised upon getting millions of workers to download smartphone apps or adopt wearables that will be used for contact tracing in the workplace. Most are designed to notify workers if they come into proximity to other workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

But all these technological solutions to the pandemic comes with significant pitfalls. They all require pervasive monitoring and broad employer control over workers. Their scope and inner workings remain ambiguous with little oversight. By design, most of these apps collect an unprecedented amount of data, and their default settings institute intrusive levels of mass surveillance.

This sort of data collection – especially the collection of personal data and activities – would radically transform the modern workplace into a surveillance dystopia. Personal data easily can be used to profile workers and influence automated decisions about work assignments as well as promotions, pay, dismissals or even mass layoffs. And continuous surveillance and monitoring of a worker while away from the workplace blurs boundaries between work and personal life.

No one disputes that workplace health and safety measures to combat the coronavirus are needed, but worker surveillance tools are not a magic bullet, and the benefits of any new technology must outweigh the risks.

Many of these apps depend on widespread use by public. The problem is that if most people are unable or unwilling to use them, we will have turned the workplace into a surveillance dystopia for nothing. In a recent poll, nearly three out of five Americans said they were unable or unwilling to use contact tracing apps. Those who were unwilling cited privacy concerns, fears of government surveillance and their well-justified distrust in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Given the inherent power imbalance between workers and their employers – which is even worse at a time when millions are out work and jobs are hard to come by – workers should have to give consent and opt-in to using these apps in workplaces that have deployed them. Without a clear right to refuse consent, workers could be forced to accept intrusive levels of surveillance or risk losing their jobs. At the moment, no such right exists.

Indeed, there are no rules or even voluntary guidelines for employers as they consider whether to introduce new surveillance technologies into their workplaces.

After the wave of big tech scandals over the past few years, all of us should be wary about a rush to embrace new technologies that store and process oceans of personal data in real time. We need to establish clear boundaries and put in place clear, enforceable workplace data safeguards that require best practices for employers.

Before deploying these apps, employers should fully vet the technologies. Adopting a proactive “privacy-and-security-by-design” approach will help mitigate the risks.

Transparency about how the technology operates, how data is collected and used, and how that data is protected will go a long way toward building trust and helping workers approach these technologies with a positive attitude.

If workers are better informed about these technologies and they are deployed with strong safeguards, they could become a useful tool for fighting the pandemic instead of a step toward an insidious workplace panopticon.

Kilic is the digital rights program director at Public Citizen.

Tags Contact tracing Coronavirus COVID-19 apps Surveillance

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