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Coronavirus: Canadian employers using thermal cameras, location-tracking smartphone apps against COVID-19

Coronavirus: The New Reality – May 10
WATCH ABOVE: Contact tracing - weighing privacy vs. public health

Vancouver hairdresser Missy Clarkson has mixed feelings about heading back to work next week.

“I really miss my clients and it will be really nice to see them,” she said. “But I am feeling nervous, for sure.”

As provinces begin re-opening their economies, Canadians who’ve been sheltering at home for weeks now face the prospect of heading back to work. And they may arrive to find their workplaces looking very different.

“It’s going to be a lot different feeling in the salon,” Clarkson says, listing restrictions that will include limiting the number of customers, adding more space between chairs and sinks, and staff members wearing masks and possibly even face shields. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. It’s our new normal.”

Mandatory face masks at B.C. supermarkets?
Mandatory face masks at B.C. supermarkets?

In addition to wearing masks and keeping their distance, some companies are introducing new screening measures.

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“Every day we’re going to ask them: has anything in your condition changed, from a health perspective?” said Frank Voss, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada.

The automaker will re-open its plants in southwestern Ontario on Monday for the first time since mid-March.

When employees arrive, they’ll be asked about any symptoms and scanned by a thermal imaging camera. Anyone with a temperature above 37.2 C will be flagged. Plexiglass barriers have also been installed separating some production lines and between chairs in the cafeteria.

READ MORE: Inside the ICU: What staff at a Toronto hospital have learned about COVID-19

Some companies are even requiring their employees to download a smartphone app. Vancouver’s Daniel Leung is the founder and CEO of LivNao, a tech firm that’s developed a contact tracing app that tracks an employee’s location while at work.

Using a phone’s GPS and Bluetooth signals, it can determine whether employees have had contact with a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19. The app can also tell if workers are violating social distancing rules by gathering in close proximity or in large numbers.

A Screenshot of LivNao’s app, ‘Contrac,’ which alerts smartphone users if they may have had contact with a COVID-19 patient.
A Screenshot of LivNao’s app, ‘Contrac,’ which alerts smartphone users if they may have had contact with a COVID-19 patient. LivNao

“Let’s say, for example, best practices are that you’re only allowed to have one person in a truck at a time on a construction site and we see that there are two people in the truck. We might send a notification to the two users and just remind them that to be safe, there should only be one person at a time in a truck,” Leung explained.

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“It’s important to note that all of this remains anonymous. It’s not a tool for employers or even the government to track individual people. It’s a tool to keep people safe and to help people re-activate the workforce.”

Alberta working on contract tracing app for cellphones
Alberta working on contract tracing app for cellphones

But the growing number of contact tracing smartphone apps, deployed by both private companies and governments in more than 25 countries in response to COVID-19, is sparking a global debate over privacy.

Contact tracing has traditionally been done by manually calling a sick person’s contacts one-by-one. But as Canadians begin to emerge from isolation and start having contact with more people, that workload could grow exponentially.

“It’s going to require many, many, many people to be able to follow-up with all of those positive tests,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, chief of staff at Humber River Hospital. “And that’s a part where I think we’re particularly vulnerable, because no public health unit has the resources to do that right now.”

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A contact tracing app automates that process, by retracing the movements of COVID-19 patients and automatically alerting other smartphone users who may have had contact.

READ MORE: COVID-19 tracing apps come with privacy risks to Canadians, watchdogs warn

But governments in Canada have been reluctant to adopt the technology, citing privacy concerns. Most of the apps currently on offer require access to a smartphone’s GPS location, allowing the government to track a person’s movements.

“If you knew that, as of tomorrow, the government has a trace on everywhere I’ve been and all the people I’ve come in contact with, you may not want to live in a country like that,” said Richard Janda, a professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill University.

A team of ‘contact tracers’ in Edmonton, AB, responsible for calling a COVID-19 patient’s contacts to determine if they have symptoms and need to self-isolate.
A team of ‘contact tracers’ in Edmonton, AB, responsible for calling a COVID-19 patient’s contacts to determine if they have symptoms and need to self-isolate. Submitted

And for a contact tracing app to be effective, studies suggest at least 60 per cent of a population needs to use it.

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“And so if you have large swaths of Canada that look at these applications with suspicion, that look at these apps as injurious to their way of living, they will not use them,” said Christopher Parsons, a research associate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Coronavirus outbreak: Privacy and public health protection can be achieved with the right contact tracing app: commissioner
Coronavirus outbreak: Privacy and public health protection can be achieved with the right contact tracing app: commissioner

Google and Apple are building a framework that will allow contact tracing apps on their devices to use Bluetooth technology, rather than GPS. The Bluetooth signal would communicate anonymously with other smartphones nearby.

For example, say you’d visited a restaurant and a stranger at the next table were to test positive, you’d receive an alert with advice to monitor for symptoms. But the COVID-19 patient would remain anonymous and their personal data would be encrypted and never leave their device.

“Apple has walked me through on two occasions all of what they’ve done in terms of the tech and the privacy, preserving features and no geolocation data and everything. And so I can give my vote of confidence to it,” said former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

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Some apps, like the one released just last week in Alberta, already employ Bluetooth technology. But without software support from the smartphone manufacturers, they’ve been plagued with technical issues and haven’t been widely adopted.

The Google-Apple app support is expected to be ready later this month. “Really, I think most serious app developers at the moment have to wait until Google and Apple implement their technical infrastructure in their smartphones,” said Parsons.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Apple, Google to ban location tracking in joint contact tracing system

But while governments in Canada require citizens to “opt-in” and agree to download and use a contact tracing app, employers do not.

“Your employer is paying for your time; they are entitled to have information as to where you are and what you’re doing while you’re on the job,” said Toronto employment lawyer Lior Samfiru. “But it has to end there. It cannot extend to beyond work. So any app would have to be disconnected or disabled after work hours.”

Samfiru said it’s also conceivable that employers could decide to use a location tracking app designed for the COVID-19 pandemic for other purposes.

“For example, your employers says: ‘we noticed that between 3 and 4 p.m., you really weren’t doing work. You were chatting with a coworker. So now we’re going to discipline you for that.’”

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Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?
Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?

“With social distancing measures and with the employer’s obligation to keep workless workplaces safe, many more employers are going to be using that technology. And the reality is that once they use it, they may like it and they may consider it to be an important part of the work situation and they may not stop using it even after we’re out of this pandemic. So that may well be the new reality for many employees.”