When COVID-19 went viral, were your privacy rights infected as well?

By Kenneth A. Linzer and Frances Strnad, from Linzer Law Group, a member of DRT International Law Firm & Alliance in Los Angeles, CA.

The novel coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has forced tens of millions and possibly billions of people to adapt to a “new abnormal.”  This new abnormal includes social distancing, working from home, wearing face masks in public, attending remote video meetings on technologies like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype or Cisco Webex, to name just a few.  Accompanying these adjustments, there has been a surge in the use of surveillance technologies and so-called contact-tracing apps by both employers and governments around the globe.

These surveillance technologies are commonly used by employers to ensure worker productivity and workplace connectivity, and by governments to monitor infection rates, prevent the further spread of the virus, keep track on their citizens and even to enforce social distancing guidelines.  Some employers are using cameras in their offices, originally installed to monitor use of their workspaces, for the purpose of monitoring employee movements, ostensibly in order to ensure they maintain the proper social distancing.  But, what other uses and possible impermissible invasions of workers’ privacy does the use of these technologies portend?

Not to left out in the cold, some law enforcement agencies have even adapted aerial drones, used to remotely view and catalog activities in their jurisdictions, to track heat signatures and distances between citizens on the street. Ostensibly, these drones are being deployed for the purpose of monitoring compliance with social distancing guidelines and to prevent the spread of the virus; however, what other uses can and will be made of these various technologies?

In the United States, employers have implemented several measures to ensure that workers are productive while working remotely, whether from home, their automobile, their backyard or even the beach.  Thousands of companies have begun monitoring their employees via surveillance software that tracks an employee’s web searches, keystrokes, and screen time during active work hours. The surveillance software, sometimes called “tattleware,” then sends screenshots of the employee’s computer screen to their manager along with a daily report about that employee’s productivity.

Additionally, some companies are enforcing “always on” webcam policies so that managers can randomly check on employees at any time.  Although these policies are intended to provide workers with a feeling of human interaction, they often times end up invading privacy and distracting employees from their work.