Track & trace offers opportunities... but challenges privacy laws

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Some experts fear that contact tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening economies.

Smart building technology presents a compelling approach to support our safe “return to normality” until you realise that some of it is illegal under our prevailing data privacy laws, or at least it was before the crisis.

“The handling of such data is permitted only in certain cases. For example, if a higher, defendable interest justifies it and such handling is proportionate. On the other hand, employers must provide a working environment that does not threaten life and health. It is going to be a task for legislators to draw the line between the protection of privacy and public health; the consequences of the epidemic could prioritise the latter,” explain Dr. Attila Ungár and Dr. Kata Molnár, lawyers at Lakatos, Köves & Partners.

Research company Memoori has studied the issues involved and suggests that the privacy debate will rumble on whilst the technology in question is already being increasingly implemented in our public spaces and private areas and buildings.

Whether it’s contact tracing, thermal cameras, occupancy tracking, or other technology, organisations have been given an unofficial emergency license to collect whatever data they want, in support of public health. According to the analysts this is a great excuse to install more sensors, cameras, and apps because they can support an alternative to lockdown measures, and may even become vital to control a pandemic that is by no means under control. The data privacy debate has not changed but the world has, fuelling both sides of the argument during an evolving global disaster.

Contact tracing rolls out across the US

Building-integrated contact tracing technology is now being rolled out in buildings across the US. Memoori found that managed security services provider Kastle Systems has created an integrated, building-wide pandemic safety technology solution called Kastlesafespaces, which enables office buildings to offer touchless access control, facilitate employee symptom screening, and manage contact tracing. As it is implementing at its Arlington office tower, also home to Nestle’s US headquarters. Kastle has already announced a partnership with real estate investment firm Monday Properties to introduce the system in its DC metropolitan area portfolio.

Opportunities for the security industry

Memoori researchers believe that security providers are well-positioned to move into this new market but they are not alone. The first wave of building-integrated contact tracing solutions will come from those firms able to leverage the users, sensors, and data they already have. Real-time indoor location systems manufacturer Sewio usually provides tracking data for the retail, sport, entertainment, and livestock industries. However, they recently released RTLS for the workplace, sensor and portable transmitters enabled asset, fleet, and people tracking solution with contact tracing functionality.

In April, coworking space Knotel proposed a contact tracing app for members that would connect to its existing location tracking services. “It’s crossing a rubicon in terms of companies and personal privacy, but if your colleagues were on vacation in someplace and nobody knows about it and now they’re in the office, suddenly that became a really big thing,” Knotel founder Amol Sarva told The Real Deal.

Who owns this valuable data?

Even residential buildings are considering contact tracing technology, leaving no personal data stone unturned in our mission to return-to-normality. “Smart home systems must now consider how that tracking could intersect with the way residents pair Google Home and Google Nest with their smart home devices. Says Scé Pike, founder and CEO of Iotas wrote on Forbes. “A clear understanding of data ownership is imperative … When it comes to the data they input, and the data from all the devices they connect, who owns all that? This is a complicated issue with no easy answers.”

The reality, suggest the analysts, is that the same kind of data these systems would collect in the name of pandemic-control presents incredible value beyond that purpose. Thermal camera data analytics has the potential to determine a person’s mood throughout the day, meaning their feelings towards specific people, tasks, news, or sales promotions. In addition to tracking our every move, this feels exactly like the road to a big brother dystopia that our data privacy laws are designed to avoid. The safety benefits are real, however. So, as health becomes the main public priority the question becomes, are we willing to risk the misuse of data for a quicker return to normality?

Track & trace faces skepticisim

70% of Americans are “deeply skeptical” about the contact tracing technology according to a Brookings Institute study, which also determined that the technology would face “enormous obstacles,” especially in the current political climate. “Skepticism toward digital contact tracing was not equal across racial groups, a disparity that if such apps are rolled out in the United States could result in further inequities in health outcomes among marginalised communities,” the Brookings study stated.

“We have serious doubts that voluntary, anonymous contact tracing through smartphone apps — as Apple, Google and faculty at a number of academic institutions all propose — can free Americans of the terrible choice between staying home or risking exposure,” technologist Ashkan Soltani, University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom (biology) and Ryan Calo (law) wrote in an op-ed for the Brookings Institute. “We worry that contact tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so.”


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