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Occupant Privacy Concerns

In one form or another, arguments about occupant privacy go on all the time, especially when new forms or uses of technology are introduced. When body-scanners were introduced at airports, there was a certain amount of reticence among passengers. More recently, phone tracking has been used (arguably effectively) in south Korea and Singapore to monitor population distribution and combat the spread of COVID-19, but debates among legislators in liberal democratic countries have stressed the need for less invasive technology applications that will maintain public trust.

As countries begin to exit the lockdown, for example, contact-tracing apps could be used to alert users when they have been in contact with an infected person, thus allowing them to more effectively self-isolate, or get tested, or seek treatment. Cooperation between Apple and Google has brought this prospect much closer. [1] But this in turn has elicited a negative response from a number of academic and legislative groups, among them the Ada Lovelace institute who warn against setting a dangerous precedent, and argue that it would be “hugely problematic if things were rushed in the rollout”. The Financial Times quotes from an open letter on behalf of various academics around the world who “are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”[2]

However, the letter itself highlights the need for “innovative ways of coming out of the current lockdowns.”[3] And if there are technology solutions that need to be devised or implemented, it is important that we ensure the correct steps are taken to maximise public (or in our case, occupant, employee, resident) trust. Privacy concerns are a topic of conversation in the IoT world anyway, one that the current crisis has merely accentuated. In buildings, many of the steps that we propose are linked with access control or security, and here are some suggestions for the use of thermal imaging technology in offices and residential developments.

First, it should be made clear that a lot of seemingly invasive technology like thermal imaging and occupant sensors are in fact anonymous. Typically they detect heat signatures using passive infrared (PIR) but do not, and cannot, reveal identifying features. Likewise with the abovesaid cameras that are used to understand and improve the use of space: they typically use ultrasonic or infrared. For occupants the key phrase here is ‘meaningful consent’, a feature of European law that says nothing sensitive can be gathered or analysed without their express permission.

Second, occupants should be made aware of the laws and regulations that govern the safe use of their data. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) outlines the correct use of occupant data, and could result in fines of up to 4% of worldwide company revenue for improper use. Residents should be aware that they can withdraw their data if it isn’t in the public interest, and can only have it stored in the first place if there is some basis in agreement either though contracts, agreements, or some form of legal obligation. Vendors and suppliers of cameras, for example, are typically not under obligations to comply because they do not store and process information, but in digitally enhanced infrastructure, the role of stakeholders involved in data analysis should be made clear to end users.

Occupants should never be made to feel uncomfortable because of technology installed to improve their overall experience; it is therefore critical to keep them informed of new developments, new capabilities, and their own rights as regards data privacy. Once these boundaries are outlined and well understood, occupants can begin to make informed decisions.

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/8a11bf86-dd71-4fd2-b196-e3ddffe48936

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/005ab1a8-1691-4e7b-8e10-0d3d2614a276

[3] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1OQg2dxPu-x-RZzETlpV3lFa259Nrpk1J/view`

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