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Law, HR experts say government needs to lead on health identity

facial recognition can identify people wearing masks

In a discussion last week about the practicalities of immunity certificates and health identity systems and digital health credentials in the UK, a pair of very interested parties said governments need to give businesses more guidance on health data policies and processes.

Dee Masters, barrister with the law firm Cloisters Chambers, and Katie Jacobs, senior stakeholder lead with human resource association CIPD, said there are too many variables for companies to consider when trying to craft health data policies, especially considering the changing nature of COVID-19 workplace issues.

Masters and Jacobs were participating in a panel sponsored by the Ada Lovelace Institute, a UK data and AI think tank. The Lovelace Institute has been pushing this topic around with panels for some weeks, but given the complex, fluid and novel nature of the pandemic few concrete action items have resulted.

Answers will need to arrive sooner than later. Identity verification firm EYN Ltd., for example, has won a grant to develop so-called Covid-free certificates that are valid for 48 to 72 hours. The certificates, which share information with QR codes, would only confer a negative status with high probability. EYN says test results are linked to a “soft” identity, so no biometrics are involved.

The starting place for this discussion was that businesses and governments globally want secure, easy-to-use and reliable mechanisms to designate individuals who will not pass on or fall victim to the coronavirus.

Masters and Jacobs said businesses do not want overbearing or rash government actions when it comes to business operations during the pandemic, but some guidance is critical.

Indeed, leaving the process up to already beleaguered executives and boards is not viable. Confusion is paralyzing the legal and human resources departments of some of the world’s biggest companies. They are too busy reacting to make more than short-term recommendations for CEOs.

The lack of understanding is basic.

According to a transcript of the event, Masters said: “I hate the world ‘ethical.’ I don’t know what it means. I think businesses don’t know what it means” in this context.

Ethics is a prime consideration when deciding who holds employee health data, and for how long, who has to get tested for the virus or antibodies before returning to work, or how often. Is it legal to prioritize call-backs based on test results? That might lead to regressive-looking offices dominated by young, white and affluent workers.

“Government needs to be brave enough to provide clarity without fearing they will then be criticized for stifling innovation,” said Masters. “I think clarity will encourage” innovation.

Jacobs agreed: “Most people want to be doing the right thing, but are just not sure what the right thing is or looks like.”

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