COVID-19 Screening Program Can Lead To Litigation Concerning Biometric Information, BIPA

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As organizations aim to return to some type of normalcy, and help ensure a healthy and safe workplace, many have implemented COVID-19 screening programs that check for symptoms, and an employee’s recent travel and potential contact with the virus. Moreover, many states and localities across the nation are mandating or recommending the implementation of COVID-19 screening programs in the workplace, and beyond. In many cases, organizations have leveraged various technologies, such as social distancing bands, apps, and thermal scanners, to streamline their screening programs.

Despite the benefits of COVD-19 screening programs, organizations should proceed carefully to examine not only whether the particular solution will have the desired effect, but whether it can be implemented in a compliant manner with minimal legal risk, particularly regarding the privacy and security implications. Just last week Amazon was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit in Illinois state court, claiming the company’s COVID-19 screening program violated Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).  According to the complaint, Amazon employees were required to undergo facial geometry scans and temperature scans before entering company warehouses, without prior consent from employees as required by law when collecting biometrics identifiers, such as a facial geometry scan.

The BIPA sets forth a comprehensive set of rules for companies doing business in Illinois when collecting biometric identifiers or information of state residents. The BIPA has several key features: • Informed consent prior to collection • Limited right of disclosure of biometric information • Written policy requirement addressing retention and data destruction guidelines • Prohibition on profiting from biometric data • A private right of action for individuals harmed by BIPA violations. Statutory damages can reach $1,000 for each negligent violation, and $5,000 for each intentional or reckless violation.

The complaint alleges that Amazon employees “lost the right to control” how their biometric data was collected, used and stored, exposing them to “ongoing, serious, and irreversible privacy risks — simply by going into work”.  In addition to claims of failure to notify employees and obtain express consent regarding their biometric data collection practices, the complaint also alleges that Amazon failed to develop and follow a publicly available retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying workers’ biometric data.

While this case is an important reminder of BIPA implications, implementing a COVID-19 screening program, or any type social distancing or contact tracing technology to help prevent/limit the spread of coronavirus for that matter, can have privacy and security implications that extend well beyond the BIPA. In addition to the BIPA, depending on the type of data being collected and who is collecting it, such practices may trigger compliance obligations under several federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In addition to BIPA, other state laws should be considered, if applicable, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and state laws that require reasonable safeguards to protect personal information and notification in the event of a data breach. International laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also can affected screening programs depending on their scope. In addition to statutory or regulatory mandates, organizations will also need to consider existing contracts or services agreements concerning the collection, sharing, storage, or return of data, particularly for service providers supporting the screening program.  Finally, whether mandated by law or contract, organizations should still consider best practices to help ensure the privacy and security of the data it is responsible for.

COVID-19 screening programs, as well as the extensive technology at our disposal and/or in development are certainly helping organizations address the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring a safe and health workplace and workforce, and preventing future pandemics.  Nevertheless, organizations must consider the legal risks, challenges, and requirements with any such technology prior to implementation.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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