Companies like PwC, the global consultancy, are rushing to create surveillance tools that will monitor the spread of coronavirus in offices and workplaces.
The companies, which also include smaller startups in the U.S., Locix and Microshare, want to give employers the confidence to reopen their facilities, take steps to control outbreaks and alert staff if they come in contact with infected colleagues.
Although governments and technology companies are working on voluntary tools that send similar alerts, they may not be widely adopted. On the other hand, PwC said that companies could make their tool mandatory.
“You really need most people to do this,” said Rob Mesirow, who leads PwC’s practice of connected solutions. “American companies will have to [tell employees]: If you return to the desktop, you will need this application on your phone “.
Locix said it was building a tool designed to track where people were within inches.
If an employee tested positive, a company could retrace its steps and see exactly where and for how long others interacted with them. Surfaces can also be cleaned after an infected person is known to be handling them, say, a certain forklift or photocopier.
“In a warehouse, I will be looking for people in seconds,” said Vik Pavate, chief executive of Locix. “The contact is not only with people, but in spaces. . . It’s ‘Where have you been?’ And ‘How long have you lived there?’ “
Microshare’s “Universal Contract Tracking” would lead employees to wear badges, key rings or bracelets embedded with inexpensive Bluetooth beacons.
Michael Moran, director of risk and sustainability for the Philadelphia-based company, said this is a better alternative to the project that Google and Apple created based on using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signal.
“It is really an impressive blind spot of [the Apple-Google] approach to think that somehow there was universal adoption of smartphones, “he said.” It just isn’t true. And, in fact, the most vulnerable populations in the world are exactly those who do not have them. “
The PwC solution uses the Bluetooth and WiFi functions of an employee’s smartphone to map anonymously how employees interact.
In the event that a person reports human resources that have been infected, authorized personnel will enter their information into the system “and, in seconds, track everyone,” so that the HR person can inform those teams, Mesirow said. “And it divides people into high risk, medium risk and low risk based on time and distance. That’s why accuracy is really important. “
He added that it would be up to employers to preserve the privacy of their employees. “[Our system] it was designed to have the last privacy doors, but at the end of the day you cannot control human nature, ”said Mesirow. “We are not here to police the Fortune 1000 HR department.”
Security experts note that employees using smartphones issued by the company have few privacy protections anyway: in many cases, employers can monitor a user’s location or what applications they download.
But companies must provide assurances about confidentiality and set expectations about how the data will be used, protected and for how long, in order to gain the user’s trust, they say.
“It will be very difficult to reach the goal of getting back to work without sacrificing privacy,” said Jena Valdetero, privacy lawyer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. “Without data governance and accountability principles, [these solutions are] open to abuse. ”
“It’s about transparency, accountability, security and data minimization – not collecting more than you need,” he added.
Other critics note technological limitations and question the effectiveness of even solutions focused on business. For example, the technology may not recognize whether a person is wearing protective equipment and signal it as “high risk” after a few encounters.
These solutions can be adjusted over time to become more accurate. Or they may miss their goal, said Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission.
“All companies today are trying to think about how to safely allow their workforce to return to the office,” he said. “But technological solutions are like snake oil. They will not be trusted. “