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When news broke recently that the Swedish Data Protection Authority fined a local municipality more than USD $20,000 for privacy violations, it marked the emergence of a potential new front in the struggle to balance privacy rights and security requirements.

Under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—sweeping legislation that governs everything from website tracking to data collection practices across the 28-member European Union and European Economic Area—the use of data gathered with the help of facial recognition and biometric software is restricted and tightly controlled. Apparently a school board in Sweden didn’t get the memo and used facial recognition software to track high school student attendance over a three-week trial period intended to test out new technology.

The school board saw the tracking software as a more efficient use of teacher’s classroom time. According to media reports, attendance-conscious educators had apparently been devoting about 17,000 hours a year to keeping tabs on their pupils. The SDPA saw the matter differently and issued the significant fine, a first for Sweden.

Tech as a security tool, but to what end? 

The European Union has taken the lead in legislating to secure privacy rights and protect citizens, just as authorities in other regions have turned to cutting-edge new technology designed to enhance protection measures for the general public. In the wake of recent shootings in Toronto, for example, the city’s community housing agency has announced plans to increase video surveillance in at-risk neighbourhoods, all to help deter crime and aid police enforcement efforts. In the United Kingdom, cities such as London have long relied on street-level surveillance to maintain safety. The U.S. government has been using biometric technology, including the fingerprinting of foreign visitors, at border crossings for years.

The challenge that arises, of course, is when governments abuse these tools. China has faced widespread criticism for its use of facial recognition and data collection programs in its western provinces to track the local Uyghur community. In other parts of the country, Beijing actively uses technology to help silence or monitor anti-government voices. Many liken the tactics to an Orwellian invasion of privacy, an effort to enforce government-sanctioned values on an unassuming populace.

If a school board in Sweden uses facial recognition technology to track students, some argue, it’s not far-fetched to expect a more widespread application of that software across society. In the hands of a trusted few there isn’t much concern. But what happens if those individuals can no longer be trusted?

Legal systems adapting to new technology 

The reality is the use of technology as a protective tool is hardly novel and, in most cases, isn’t nearly as sinister as some may contend. The big question, as with the example from Sweden, is to what degree governments will tolerate its use. Authorities in Canada are beginning to weigh in on the safety and security vs. privacy debate.

In Ontario, for example, a labour arbitrator recently ruled in Teamsters Local Union No. 230 v Innocon Inc., that a concrete delivery company (Innocon) had the right to install cameras in its trucks to help improve driver safety and highlight potential driver misconduct by recording a driver’s actions, but only in the event that the vehicle swerved unexpectedly or took some form of evasive action that could indicate erroneous or erratic driving. In the arbitrator’s view, some level of in-cab monitoring was justified because an employer’s business interests can supersede an employee’s right to privacy under specific circumstances.

Security strategies for business

Business owners should be aware that at any point, our legal landscape could shift and new laws could limit the use of biometric or facial technology when used in public spaces or workplaces. But I predict that governments will take a measured approach to balancing privacy and security concerns. It’s likely that we will see a tightening of privacy restrictions in Ontario and across Canada at some point. In the meantime, however, your focus should be on assessing your organization’s security vulnerabilities and taking an integrated approach to protecting your people and assets.

That means reviewing the plethora of tech tools available on the market and deciding which ones make sense for your organization based on its operational needs. Facial recognition technology may make sense for a retailer with several busy locations, for example, but could provide little benefit to a software development firm with much simpler security needs. Be prepared to customize your strategy and invest in security components that will make a decided impact in helping mitigate risk and advancing your organization’s strategic goals (e.g., not being robbed, having your data held hostage or seeing your commercial property or workplace invaded).

But first, take the time to understand your jurisdiction’s privacy laws. Make sure your security strategy doesn’t violate any rules when the time comes to implement cutting-edge—yet potentially controversial—security technology.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO

Wincon Security