Fingerprints, voice prints and vein patterns in a person’s palm are three examples of biometrics that may be “moving into the consumer mainstream to unlock laptops and smartphones, or as a supplement to passwords at banks, hospitals and libraries,” reports Anne Eisenberg at the New York Times. Of course, these technologies, aimed at increasing security and, to a lesser degree, convenience, raise data privacy concerns and other risks. However effective, convenient, and efficient these technologies may be, companies need to think through carefully their adoption and implementation, particularly in the workplace.

Below are just a few of the kinds of questions companies should be asking before implementing technologies that involve capturing biometric information.  It is likely that such technologies will go mainstream and, if so, spawn new laws regulating the use of biometric information. Thus, companies using such technologies will need to continue to monitor the legal landscape to manage their risks.

Can we collect this information? In some cases, the answer may be no. For example, in New York, Labor Law Section 201-a prohibits the fingerprinting of employees by private employers, unless required by law. However, according to an opinion letter issued by the State’s Department of Labor on April 22, 2010, a device that measures the geometry of the hand is permissible as long as it does not scan the surface details of the hand and fingers in a manner similar or comparable to a fingerprint. Other states may permit the collection of biometric information provided certain steps are taken. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, for instance, prohibits private entities from obtaining a person’s or customer’s biometric identifier or biometric information unless the person is informed in writing and consents in writing.

If we can collect it, do we have to safeguard it?  Regardless of whether a statute requires a business to safeguard such information, we believe it is good practice to do so. However, states such as Illinois (see above) already require a reasonable standard of care when storing, transmitting or disclosing biometric information.

Is there a notification obligation if unauthorized persons get access to biometric information? In some states the answer is yes.  The breach notification statutes in states such as Michigan include biometric data in the definition of personal information. MCLS § 445.72

Are there any requirements for disposing of this information? Yes, a number of states (e.g., Colorado and Massachusetts) require that certain entities meet minimum standards for properly disposing records containing biometric information.

Can employees claim this technology amounts to some form of discrimination? In addition to securing devices and accounts, biometric technologies also are being used to track employee time and attendance in order to enhance workforce management. These different applications can form the basis of discrimination claims. For example, earlier in 2013, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claimed an employer’s use of a biometric hand scanner to track employee time and attendance violated federal law by failing to accommodate certain religious beliefs which opposed the use of such devices.

Retinal scan technology is another biometric technology that can be used for identification/security purposes.  However, as explained in a recent article, “examining the eyes using retinal scanning can aid in diagnosing chronic health conditions such as congestive heart failure and atherosclerosis…[as well as] diseases such as AIDS, syphilis, malaria, chicken pox and Lyme disease [and] hereditary diseases, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell anemia.” Thus, the data captured by such scans can inform employers about the health conditions of their employees, raising a range of medical privacy, medical inquiry and discrimination issues under federal and state laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.