Technology has played a dominant role during the lockdown and will be a key aspect of ensuring the transition back to normality is successful. This article discusses recent trends, particularly in Ireland, Denmark and China, regarding the adoption of facial recognition technology (FRT) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We look in more detail at some of the pre-pandemic use cases for, and concerns about, FRT, and consider the key aspects of data protection law when adopting such technology solutions.

Exit through technology

Age, geographic, sector and other forms of segmentation and social distancing will become the longer-term norm as countries transition out of lockdown. Use of key measures such as technology-enabled contact tracing are playing an important part, particularly in jurisdictions at a more advanced stage of transition from lockdown. It has been suggested that a 60% rate of adoption of tracing app usage could end the epidemic. This requires the population to suspend concerns about privacy for a greater common good; to trust that the benefits outweigh the risks and that the technology is designed and used in a way that strikes the appropriate balance.

During lockdown and as we move out of lockdown, certain essential services and sectors such as medical device and food manufacturing, telecoms and core banking services have remained operational or will gradually expand before others.

In Ireland, a large food producer has put an FRT solution in live use as part of staff protection measures, to avoid staff needing to sign in manually at the start and completion of their shifts. There are already signs of a move to germless and contactless security and access control systems. One Chinese company has confirmed its masked facial recognition program is at a 95% accuracy rate and noted a surge in requests for technology at entrances to premises. At the moment, these are predominantly from hospitals at the centre of the outbreak in China wanting to ensure that nurses wearing masks, who needed access confirmed at a distance, are admitted to work. And the technology is advancing: facial recognition technology can be connected to a temperature sensor, measuring subject’s body temperature while also identifying their face and name.

Companies looking to adopt such technology need to consider the restrictions and balances set out in the existing legal framework, taking into account, in particular, that what is necessary in a lockdown scenario may not be necessary when relative normality returns. An interesting position taken by some of the Asia privacy regulators is that, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to life is an absolute right, whereas the right to privacy is a qualified right. They are, therefore, looking at privacy considerations in connection with the pandemic through that lens. In this article, we take a closer look at some of the more established use cases for facial recognition technology and how those checks and balances apply to them.

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