The Race To Trace: Businesses implement internal contact tracing systems

July 18, 2020


2 min read

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What's going on here?

With a UK-wide, state-led contact tracing system yet to be implemented, companies are launching their own internal systems that will aim to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 amongst employees.

What does this mean?

Contact tracing is a key weapon in the war against COVID-19. It enables the identification and notification of individuals who may have contracted the virus due to having come into contact with an infected person. The government is yet to roll out a nationwide contact tracing system. Check out our report on its planned approach here.

Many companies, including Amazon and Anglo American, have opted to implement internal contact tracing systems within their workplaces. Contact tracing devices, such as apps and wearables (devices that attach to clothes), will detect and alert employees that are too close to each other to help prevent the spread of the virus. They will also collect data indicating which employees have come into contact with each other and for how long, enabling employees that had been in close proximity with an infected employee to be identified, notified and advised to self-isolate. According to tech companies, demand for these devices is high.

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights how private companies’ contact tracing systems may be able to overcome some of the challenges associated with those proposed by the government. However, they too will pose problems.

From a privacy standpoint, the former is arguably preferable, as sensitive data is likely to be available to less people. Wearables present a lesser threat to privacy than apps as they are standalone devices with no access to users’ phone data. Moreover, in order for the government’s proposed app to be effective, an estimated 80% of UK smartphone users would need to use it. Far fewer people would be required to cooperate with a workplace-based system for it to have the desired effect.

However, workplace-based systems raise privacy and data protection concerns too. In the interests of maintaining employee relations and avoiding fines for breach of data protection laws, companies should limit data collection to what is necessary to achieve the aims of the system and restrict who has access to this data. Companies will also be expected to keep their intrusion into employees’ personal lives to a minimum. There is also a question of consent. Under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), the processing of health data is permitted if the data subject has freely consented. However, due to the nature of the employment relationship, it is difficult to say whether consent given by an employee to an employer is freely given. There is currently a lack of legal certainty surrounding whether an employee’s refusal to consent to the processing of this data can give rise to disciplinary action or dismissal.

In light of the challenges being faced by the government in its development of a nationwide contact tracing app, workplace-based contact tracing systems appear to be an appropriate way to bridge the gap. It is the difficult task of the developers and implementers of these technologies to strike the fine balance between the urgency of controlling the pandemic, the need for business operations to resume, and the privacy concerns that technological solutions provoke.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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