Biometric Technology Use During the Pandemic Can Pose Ethical Problems

By Nicole Lewis November 9, 2020
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woman having temperature checked

​As the coronavirus pandemic continues, biometric technologies that take employees' temperature and rely on facial recognition are supporting new workplace-safety procedures. Employers should be careful when adopting these technologies and tell employees how the information that's being collected about them will be used, experts say.

One of the most popular forms of biometric technology employers are using now is thermal imaging.

The city of Lancaster, Calif., installed PopEntry+, a digital thermometer that uses thermal imaging, captured by a scanner mounted outside the building, to check the temperature of each of the 250 city employees before they enter. A product of Pasadena, Calif.-based PopID, a CaliGroup company, the PopEntry+ system was installed at the city of Lancaster's office building in April.

"We needed to automate temperature taking," said Jason Caudle, city manager in Lancaster. "Having a nursing staff use a hand-held thermometer was not going to be operationally efficient and would be a significant cost. We considered cost, management simplicity, accuracy and available features."

In addition to screening employees' temperature, the system allows companies to ask health-related questions that employees answer by giving specific hand signals to indicate yes or no. The technology also has a facial-recognition feature. Individuals can register to be recognized by their face or can simply be referred to as "guest." The system serves as a touch-free, contactless identification system.

Other employers are using thermal scanning, as well. Companies like Amazon have started to use thermal cameras at its warehouses to scan workers, and Tyson Foods purchased more than 150 infrared walk-through temperature scanners and installed them in four facilities, including in the company's pork plants in Iowa and Indiana and poultry plants in Arkansas and Georgia. Airports, medical facilities, academic institutions and other organizations are also using digital temperature devices.

Biometrics at Work

Biometrics involves body measurements and calculations that are related to human characteristics, which are digitized and used to authenticate and identify individuals. Biometric technology that generates information from our bodies can support employees in many ways at the workplace. 

Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner, pointed out that body-monitoring technology can nudge employees to act to improve their health. He expects companies to buy more products that check employees' vital signs, especially since consumers often use wearable devices to check their heart rate or to support their health and wellness efforts.

"The reality is the workplace five years from now will have dramatically more technologies like this than it does today," Kropp said. "Used the right way, these technologies are beneficial for both employers and employees, but especially for employees because they can get the right support that they need and take action soon."

Ethical Challenges

One significant challenge employers face, Kropp said, is that while consumers can choose to use wearable devices, employees may not have a choice when their company decides to use these technologies to monitor workers.

"In your private life, you have a choice to wear an Apple Watch or not, but at the workplace the question is, are you forced to do it? Is this information being collected about you without your input and without your knowledge? And is the company crossing an ethical line as to what is OK and what isn't?" Kropp asked.

He added that gathering worker information through these devices raises an important question: What rights to privacy does an employee have while at work?

"For example, if the size of my pupil is being tracked while I am at work, the result might be an indicator that I am more productive or less productive, but in other cases it might just be that the sun was bright outside and reflected on the table, and it made it harder for me to see," Kropp said. "Am I going to be fired or get a bad performance review because the sun was bright in the room I happened to be in?"

One way to address concerns is to be transparent with employees on why you are implementing the technology, what you'll do with the data and how the data will be used, according to Gartner.

In a 2016 survey of more than 10,000 employees, 25 percent to 35 percent of respondents said they accepted technologies that monitored workers' vital signs on the job.

A survey conducted in 2019 of 6,000 employees showed that 30 percent to 50 percent accepted these technologies, but 70 percent said the tech was acceptable if companies tell employees why it is being used and what is being done with the information collected.

Caudle said transparency about biometric technology helps the workplace operate and maintain a healthy environment during difficult times: "First, make sure you are working with a provider that you trust. Second, be transparent with your employees about why you are using technology and collecting specific data. If the data is creating a safer work environment, then employees will be understanding and tend to try their best to help."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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