Millions of workers are heading back to offices, factories, and shops as Britain slowly emerges from lockdown.
Now, companies and organisations are facing a dilemma: should they use body temperature cameras to attempt to screen staff and customers who might have COVID-19 symptoms?
If they do, could these organisations find themselves in hot water legally?
The short answer is, yes, they could. Here are the reasons why…
How could thermal scans come under the remit of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?
The French Council of State has just ruled on a case brought by a non-governmental organisation under the country’s code of administrative justice.
The NGO asked the courts to remove fixed and portable thermal cameras in municipal offices and schools in the city of Lisses which were being used to monitor the temperatures of staff, students, and citizens.
The French courts ruled that article four of GDPR applied (the taking of a temperature is processing) because people would be asked to leave if a high temperature was found, and their superiors or teachers would then have to be informed.
In other words, recorded high body temperatures did identify people, so they fell under the category of sensitive personal information.
The court ruled that processing individuals’ body temperatures was not legal and the city was ordered to remove the cameras.
So, how does that apply in the UK?
Article four of GDPR applies here in the same way that it does in France. So, organisations which use thermal cameras could face the same legal challenge.
Information which is held under GDPR also must have a legal basis for its collection, processing, and storage.
What would the legal basis for thermal cameras be? That’s a very grey area.
COVID-19 can be spread without symptoms such as a high temperature, so monitoring them isn’t necessarily an effective method of keeping employees safe.
In fact, the current system of calling in to self-certify when someone has symptoms or sending in a doctor’s note could be argued as being perfectly adequate for workplace safety, provided social distancing and other workplace measures are also in place.
Organisations could get consent for temperature scans from employees, visitors, and customers, but would all of them agree?
If someone didn’t, there would be no legal basis for collecting this data as it is classed as 'special category'.
As special category data, which includes medical details, political views, religion and ethnicity, there must also be stringent measures in place to ensure the data is secure and processed within the bounds of GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018.
How could discrimination law apply?
There is also the possibility that monitoring temperatures when entering a building might be seen as discriminatory to certain employees.
For example, women undergoing the menopause often suffer from hot flushes which raise their temperatures.
They may well not wish to discuss their medical condition with their employer but might be singled out by temperature-measuring cameras as potentially suffering from coronavirus symptoms.
That could lead to some awkward, unwanted conversations with managers.
These women may feel that the use of the cameras is discriminatory, and an employee could file a claim against their employer even if they have not been at their workplace for two years as a case of discrimination exempts the employee from the qualifying period of employment needed to bring a claim.