Personal Privacy & Biometric Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issues of personal privacy and biometric data to the forefront of the American legal landscape. In an increasingly digital world, privacy laws are more important than ever. This reality is especially true in the context of remote workplaces, where employers have facilitated a digital migration through a variety of means. The platforms employers use have the propensity to violate personal privacy through the capture and storage of sensitive biometric information. In response, states across the nation are exploring solutions to the potential privacy issues inherent in the collection of biometric data. One of the first states to do so was Illinois, enacting a standalone biometric privacy statute in 2008: the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”). Today, BIPA is more relevant than ever and should act as a statutory blueprint for states looking to protect personal privacy and biometric data amid a global pandemic. Ultimately, though, BIPA must be supplemented by federal legislation drafted in its likeness to effectively protect individuals’ privacy on a national level.
II. Background of the Biometric Information Privacy Act
To fully understand BIPA and all its implications, one must appreciate the context in which it was enacted. The Illinois legislature passed BIPA in October 2008. The Act was passed in the immediate wake of the bankruptcy of Pay By Touch, a company which operated the largest fingerprint scan system in Illinois. Pay By Touch’s pilot program was used in grocery stores and gas stations, and its bankruptcy left users unsure of what would become of their biometric data – i.e., their fingerprints. “Biometric data – a person’s unique biological traits embodied in not only fingerprints but also voice prints, retinal scans, and facial geometry – is the most sensitive data belonging to an individual.”
Understandably, private citizens in Illinois and across the country want to safeguard their sensitive biometric data. With potential issues such as identity theft and data manipulation more prevalent than ever, people have plenty of incentives to ensure their unique identifiers stay private. In response to those concerns, legislatures have passed statutes to address biometric data and personal privacy. BIPA represents one of the most stringent of such acts in the country, setting strict requirements for the management of biometric identifiers in Illinois.
BIPA defines “biometric identifier” as (1) a retina or iris scan, (2) fingerprint, (3) voiceprint, or (4) a scan of hand or face geometry. Further, “biometric information” refers to any information, regardless of how it is captured, converted, stored, or shared, based on an individual’s biometric identifier used to identify an individual. The requirements outlined in Section 15 of the Act – which addresses the retention, collection, disclosure, and destruction of biometric data – implicate a slew of potential legal issues. The section stipulates that a private entity can collect a person’s biometric data only if it first informs the subject that a biometric identifier is being collected, informs them of the specific purpose and length of term it is being collected for, and receives a written release from the subject.
Further, the Act outlines the following concerning retention of such data:
(a) A private entity in possession of biometric identifiers or biometric information must develop a written policy, made available to the public, establishing a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever comes first.
Thus, BIPA represents a statute narrowly aimed at maintaining the security of biometric data. While BIPA was relatively unknown in Illinois between 2008-2015, a wave of litigation has since swept through the state as employees began suing their employers. Such litigation was seemingly inevitable, as BIPA provides sweeping protection for individuals against biometric data abuse. The complexities of such issues have become clearer and potential legislative solutions to them even more important in the midst of a global pandemic.
III. Personal Privacy & Biometric Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic
The issues surrounding data privacy have become increasingly relevant in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which effectively digitized the workplace as we know it. As the pandemic raged in the early months of 2020, workplaces around the globe were suddenly forced to digitally migrate to an online work environment. An inevitable result of newfound online worksites has been an increase in the utilization of biometric data. In an effort to facilitate remote work, companies have had to make work-related information accessible online. Employment attorney Eliana Theodorou outlines the ensuing issues for companies undertaking such efforts in an article entitled “COVID-19 and the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.” For example, Theodorou writes, “Some of these platforms involve video recording or access by fingerprint, face scan, or retina or iris scan, which may result in the capture and storage of sensitive biometric information.” Thus, the collection and retention of biometric data has necessarily increased during the pandemic as companies made information accessible remotely when they shifted online.
Potential privacy issues accompanying the storage of biometric data will become even more difficult to navigate as companies return to physical workplaces with the pandemic still raging. Per Theodorou, “As workplaces reopen, there will likely be an uptick in the collection of biometric data as employers turn to symptom screening technologies that collect biometric data.” This could include, for instance, contactless thermometers and facial recognition scanning technologies used for contactless security access. The issue will thus continue to be the collection and storage of sensitive biometric data as employers return to work with the newfound priorities of social distancing and limited contact. The reality is that biometric data is still a relatively new concept, with its own specific set of issues and potential solutions. Personal privacy becomes ever harder to maintain in a digital world, with the use of biometric information often a necessity both for remote access and in-person return to work. Ultimately, the risks associated with the collection of biometric data remain largely undefined or misunderstood by employers. That lack of understanding has been exacerbated by a global pandemic necessitating a digital work migration.
IV. Possible Solutions to the Privacy Issues Raised by COVID-19 and Remote Workplaces
Illinois has provided a stellar blueprint for biometric data privacy in BIPA. However, other states have been slow to follow. As of November 2021, only a handful of other states have enacted legislation aimed at the protection of biometric data. Texas and Washington, like Illinois, have passed broad biometric privacy laws. Other states like Arizona and New York have adopted more tailored biometric privacy approaches, while others have enacted laws specifically aimed at facial recognition technology. There are also proposed bills awaiting legislative approval in many more states. Ultimately, implementing widespread legislation on a state-by-state basis will be a slow and drawn-out process, rendering countless Americans’ biometric data vulnerable. Rather than continue this state-based campaign to solidify biometric data privacy, citizens must turn to the federal government for a more comprehensive and consistent solution.
The primary roadblock to legitimate privacy in the biometric information space is the lack of a centralized federal initiative to address it. “Despite its value and sensitivity, the federal government currently has no comprehensive laws in place to protect the biometric data of U.S. citizens.” The privacy issues inherent in the popularization of biometric data in pandemic-era remote workplaces demand federal attention. A wide-ranging statute applicable in all states is the first step in properly addressing these issues. Congress should look to BIPA as a blueprint, for it remains the only state law passed to address biometric data privacy which includes a personal call to action. It is unique in that regard, especially considering it was passed in 2008, and consequently provides the most aggressive statutory response thus far to potential privacy concerns. Whether a federal act is feasible remains unclear. In August 2020, Senators Jeff Merkley and Bernie Sanders introduced the National Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2020, which suggests the imposition of nationwide requirements similar to those outlined in BIPA. The viability of such an Act is doubtful, as previous privacy legislation has been difficult to pass. However, it is a sign of movement in the right direction – toward increased protection of personal privacy in a pandemic which has made biometric data more relevant and potentially at-risk for improper management and manipulation.
Luke Shadley is a third-year law student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.