'Chances of bias increases' with the use of COVID-19 contact tracing wearable

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·3 min read
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Ontario’s contact tracing wearable doesn’t pose privacy concerns, but a cybersecurity expert raises concerns that a tangible device can create workplace discrimination.

On Feb. 18, the provincial government announced it is funding Facedrive with $2.5 million to “accelerate the deployment of its wearable contact tracing technology.”

The company plans to manufacture 150,000 devices to workplaces where smartphone use is limited or prohibited like airlines, schools, construction sites, and long-term care homes, a press release said. It added that the technology is already being used by Air Canada, LiUNA, and Waywayseecappo First Nation.

The wearable will beep if users are not six-feet apart, and if one user tests positive for COVID-19 an HR representative or health and safety officials will be able to identify who has been in contact with the individual and alert them accordingly.

Sumit Bhatia, director of communications and knowledge mobilization with Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Catalyst, said that pushing for the use of this device is similar to the government urging Canadians to download the COVID-19 app. He added that the concern around privacy is highlighted more because the discussion is at the forefront.

“The contact tracing app is a function of the government taking steps to ensure people feel comfortable, and in that process, they’re trying to be as transparent as possible. And so there is generally a higher level of engagement and concern around privacy,” he said in an interview. He added that more people feel secure about their privacy being protected if it is the government in charge of the announcement.

A report from the Cybersecure Catalyst indicated that 62 per cent of Canadians trust the government with protecting their private information.

“Trust in major institutions, such as governments, banks and health care providers, to keep Canadians’ personal data secure is relatively strong,” the report read.

Bhatia added that any device or application needs to go through the right privacy approvals before it can be released to the public.

His concerns however lie in the wearable being visible, and unlike an app on your phone, “there’s potential for discrimination.”

“I don’t see this as a privacy concern, I see it as a concern that has the potential to create bias,” he said. “That bias could be in the form of you participating or not. Are you part of my tribe if you’re participating or not?”

Bhatia added this will spark a similar sentiment to the anti-masking movement, adding that it could create a hostile environment.

“The only difference for me here is we’ve added actually an element of visibility that did not exist with the contact tracing app. You could still have your app on the phone, but the minute you’ve got a band on your hand, people can identify whether you’re the person who opted in or not,” he said. “So the chances of bias increases in that time.”

Bhatia also added that bias would also depend on how the band is enforced by employers, which has not been made clear through the press release.

“We are talking about in areas where cell phones are not allowed so the contract tracing bands would be more helpful,” he said. “Well, what does that enforcement look like? Do people still have the choice to opt-in or out? Do people still have the ability to disclose their reasons for not participating or are we leaving that open to assumptions for either?”