COVID-19: Balancing technology and data privacy

As featured in Recruiter, Business Cloud, SIA, Rail UK, UK Construction and pbctoday.

At, we’re currently rolling out new software that we hope will play an important role in the fight against COVID-19. Here, we’re going to explore how we intend to do that whilst valuing data privacy, and what the potential long term applications could be once the current outbreak is behind us.

Let’s start with the technology that we developed last year. Fit for Work is a mobile application (iOS and Android) that uses facial recognition and GPS technology. The app ensures that workers are trained and equipped to carry out their tasks safely. It does this by asking them a series of questions at the start and the end of their working day, and verifies that they are the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

With just a little more information, this data becomes very powerful in the fight against Coronavirus. As we ask workers for daily updates on what symptoms (if any) they are experiencing, we can start to map the typical progression of an illness and how it spreads throughout an organisation. For someone who tests positive for COVID-19, we can identify who is at risk of contracting the disease based on who they have worked with in close proximity. If the data enables us to identify carriers early enough, we can enable organisations to take action to reduce the contagion. We may even be able to understand what actions infected people can take to reduce the duration of their illness, how much rest is typically required, and (if people are happy to divulge this information) what medication has been effective. At this stage, it’s impossible to predict where the data will lead, but we can be sure that we will be ready to follow. It is, of course, technically feasible to track a person’s location all of the time. In fact, at the time of writing, it has been proposed that phone companies do just this in order to better understand and prevent the spread of the virus. We do not intend to implement this functionality for a number of reasons. We believe that a person’s right to privacy is of utmost importance and a balance needs to be struck between this and gathering useful data in the fight against COVID-19. Whilst it is entirely appropriate for an employer to know whether someone is in the correct work location to carry out their required duties, being aware of their location at all times - including their personal life - is not required. It may be that the risk to privacy is acceptable if it means that deaths can be prevented. However, we believe that this decision is best left to governments who are democratically accountable, rather than to private companies.

Fit for Work can not only be useful for preventing the spread of COVID-19, but also for helping organisations get back on their feet earlier than they would be able to otherwise. There are at least two possibilities for how people can develop immunity, although at the time of writing there is a significant amount of uncertainty around both of them. The first is through a vaccination, which is currently in development and which will take a while to manufacture and distribute once it is created. The second is through infection and recovery, although it is not yet known whether this will make reinfection impossible. The combination of these factors means that we can expect the population to gradually develop immunity, and that at any given time there will be some people who are immune, and others who are susceptible. Those who are immune will likely be able to go about their daily lives, congregate and, crucially for the economy, work without risk of catching and spreading the disease. By tracking this information as well, employers would be able to gradually bring people back to work as they become immune, rather than having to wait until the entire population has developed herd immunity. We already use face recognition to verify that workers are who they say they are, as opposed to (for example) lending their access card to someone else who is potentially unqualified. That same functionality could be used to ensure that the people showing up for work are indeed immune, and therefore not putting themselves and others at risk. We are currently focusing on the fight against COVID-19 because that is the pre-eminent issue of the moment. However, we believe in the potential of Fit for Work and other technologies like it, beyond this global pandemic. Illness affects us all and costs companies money when employees are unable to work. Many people don’t want to be seen to be slacking, and so continue coming to work even though they are potentially infectious. This leads to others becoming ill, and potentially more lost time than would have been the case if they had stayed at home.

By tracking how symptoms develop, and their spread through an organisation, employers will be in a position to look after their workers better and reduce the number of days lost to illness. If workers were encouraged to stay at home as soon as the first symptoms develop, the spread through the organisation (and then into other homes) could be reduced. If it emerges that certain medications or actions improve recovery time, the number of lost days could be reduced. We would no longer simply talk about a bug “going around at the moment”, but be armed with data about how it is going around, and be able to take action to prevent it. This data simply does not exist at the moment. Most of our information about the typical, non-critical illnesses that we catch is anecdotal. This relatively simple technology has the potential to improve our lives, both in the current crisis and beyond, whilst prioritising personal data privacy. Once this data is available, doctors, mathematicians and artificial intelligence will be able to gather further insights that could improve our health for generations to come.


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