Imagine you arrive at work. Before you’re allowed to clock in, you have to complete a quiz on your phone that asks if you have any of the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. If you’re healthy, you get to walk in. Once inside, you go about your day while your phone uses Bluetooth beacons, GPS tracking, or both to determine the people you have been near. If one day you do come down with symptoms, the app alerts HR, which then alerts the people you’ve been in contact with.
This is already a reality for thousands of workers around the world — in particular, those working in sectors like mining, energy, manufacturing, field services (like appliance installation or repair), construction, or hospitality.
Digital contact tracing — using an app or another form of technology to track who you’ve been in touch with, with the goal of stopping the spread of the coronavirus — isn’t mandated by any states or governments in the US. But there’s nothing stopping private companies from encouraging or even requiring workers to participate.
Are you a worker who is required to participate in digital contact tracing? Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Caroline Haskins via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Signal at +1 (785) 813-1084.
Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, told BuzzFeed News that any company doing digital contact tracing in the workplace should make the system entirely opt-in and have transparency measures so workers know what they are signing up for.
But a crucial problem remains: We don’t know if any of these digital contact tracing tools are as accurate as companies say. Often, they are adapted from existing location-tracking technology, meaning their effectiveness with the coronavirus is unknown.
“A lot of these tools, we don't actually know if they're effective,” Guliani said. “And depending on what the consequences of those false positives and false negatives could be, that could be extremely problematic. So, for example, you have a lot of false positives or negatives, and that still results in needing to close down part of a business or part of a factory. That could raise questions about whether this is something worthwhile at all.”
For companies, the incentive to use digital contact tracing is simple: The longer their facilities stay closed, or the more people they have to quarantine in the case of a workplace outbreak, the more money the company loses.
But companies pitching digital contact tracing tools for workplaces told BuzzFeed News that they envision their products being used long after the coronavirus pandemic is over, meaning that what was originally a health and safety measure could force workers into a difficult quandary: opting in for what could become a permanent surveillance system — or opting out and risking their jobs?
SaferMe, a geolocation technology company based in New Zealand, makes a contact tracing app that asks workers to complete a daily symptom quiz and uses geolocation data to track their movements and possible interactions. Cofounder Mike Steere said the app is GDPR-compliant. But it has its shortfalls: Its geolocation can only gauge distance within the accuracy of several meters, which is far beyond the transmission radius of the coronavirus. Plus, workers may interact with people outside the company who don’t have the app, and they would have to manually add those close interactions.
“Lots of businesses really do prioritize health and safety, but a lot of times it doesn’t make the top list of priorities when it comes to budgeting or financing, so it can be quite a long sales cycle,” Steere said. “Where in this scenario, we can help give this tech to people where there is an acute need.”
Steere told BuzzFeed News that tens of thousands of workers in New Zealand are using SaferMe. Earlier this month, the company received a contract from the country's Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment to give out its tool for free to companies throughout the country. To date, SaferMe has mainly serviced major mining companies, such as AngloGold Ashanti, and energy companies, including Veolia.
The company is also expanding internationally. Steere said it recently signed a contract with a US-based Fortune 500 company, which he declined to name, and has received interest from other companies in the US and Mexico.
While SaferMe has been around for years, there are also new companies whose mission is specifically to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Jun Ying and Doug Nelson created geolocation-based contact tracing app ExpoSURE Tracing in February.
Since then, ExpoSURE Tracing has been in touch with companies in the warehouse and field service industries with the goal of making them safer for essential workers. But he sees the company’s future as extending far past the most severe phase of the pandemic.
“We built this from the ground up,” Ying told BuzzFeed News. “We don't call this internally a ‘COVID’ or ‘corona’ or anything like that. To us, this is just a pathogen. We think more and more of these things will happen. And even for flu season, this could be something that’s useful.”
There's also hPass, a newly formed company created by academics from Harvard and the Sloan School of Management. Their product — a QR code–based check-in app that requires people to take and pass a symptom quiz before entering a facility — is being piloted by 11 companies, four of which are in the restaurant industry, according to cofounder Shai Kivity.
Kivity told BuzzFeed News that the company has been in touch with over 200 vendors — including gyms, nursing homes, and universities — and that hPass wants its product to be used in any industry.
“What’s so important, what’s so exciting, and what is long term is — this is beyond COVID-19,” cofounder Raphael Yahalom told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously, we’re focusing on the immediate need here. But this is a long term.”
Several companies in the location-tracking business have adopted existing wristbands — typically used in manufacturing facilities, hospitals, warehouses, and construction sites — to address the spread of the coronavirus. These devices typically work by exchanging Bluetooth signals, which are stored locally and uploaded to a cloud server.
A good example is WiSilica, which struck a deal with the Hong Kong government in late March to use its TraceSafe wristbands for an enforced 14-day quarantine for all Hong Kong residents returning from abroad. WiSilica CTO Dennis Kwan told BuzzFeed News the company is in touch with construction and event venue companies.
Kwan said that the company’s relationship with the Hong Kong government demonstrated that the product can work in various scenarios, including ones that have nothing to do with the coronavirus or contact tracing.
“I think what the case in Hong Kong is the proving case for how our product is able to be reliable,” Kwan said. “The fact that we are able to adapt that into different applications, like for delivery, and then to contact tracing. ... It shows the flexibility of this product being adopted for different applications.”
The company is also piloting DeliverSafe in Kuwait, which involves having food delivery workers wear wristbands which send Bluetooth beacons to an app.
AiRSITA Flow, meanwhile, is selling wristbands and handheld devices that conduct Bluetooth contact tracing by logging interactions with nearby employees.
Vincent Grove, vice president of marketing, told BuzzFeed News that the company developed new hardware about a month ago to enforce social distancing, which is GDPR-compliant. The new devices don’t just log interactions; they also light up and beep if you come within 6 feet of another person for more than five seconds.
“We also do things like [send an] alert when groups form,” Grove said. “So if a bunch of tags come together, we can send a notification alert saying, ‘Hey, there’s a group forming.’ We can also have a sense of location associated with this. So we can tell: Is it in the break room? Is it in the lobby? And you can look over time to see if this is a recurring pattern. Are there individuals you wanna have a conversation with?”
For the past 10 years, one of the company's major clients has been prisons. Grove said that over 100,000 inmates around the globe — especially inmates in Africa, he said — use AiRSITA Flow products.
Now, he said, the company is talking to hundreds of possible vendors in large-scale manufacturing, construction, and auto manufacturing. These companies typically employ thousands to tens of thousands of people at their facilities.
KINEXON, a sensor technology company founded in 2012, also recently brought a wristband contact tracing tool to market. To date, the company's major clients have been in the logistics and manufacturing industries. For clients like BMW, the wristbands tell managers where manufacturing workers are throughout the day.
KINEXON CEO Mehdi Bentanfous told BuzzFeed News the company is piloting its new contact tracing tech to 50 potential clients. Since Bluetooth-based tech can be fallible, doesn't transmit over or through water, and can't determine if people are separated by a wall, KINEXON uses inaudible sound to double-check the Bluetooth transmissions and determine if people were actually near each other.
Bentanfous declined to name specific potential clients but said a "top 3 food and beverage company" in the US, a large logistics corporation, and top automotive suppliers were testing the product and that more than 5,000 workers are already wearing the new contact tracing wristband.
“Since we track people, we are able to track forklifts in production; we are able to do collision warnings,” Bentanfous said. “So the advantage of the product is it’s not only limited to this pandemic and physical distancing and you throw it out after everything is over. There are different applications and extensions of the technology to be used for safety purposes or material flow, people flow within productions.”
Crucially, all of these workplace contact tracing products are only as effective as a company's health, safety, and human resources. If you download your state's contact tracing app, a public health authority is running the show. But if you have an employer-owned contact tracing app, it’s up to HR to responsibly handle that information.
“That employee-employer dynamic creates additional challenges and intricacies,” Guliani said. "When you have trained health professionals, they’re trained to build trust, where there are restrictions on how data can be used. Those existing structures don’t exist in the HR context. And you’re putting [contact tracing] in a context which might already have deficiencies when it comes to workers’ rights.”
She added if workers don’t have access to COVID-19 testing or paid leave, they’re still going to be vulnerable.
“I worry a little bit that there is a sense that some of these tools are going to be silver bullets so that people can return to some degree of normalcy,” Guliani said. “And I think the reality is that in a best-case scenario, these are small tools that will only work if they’re part of a broader public health strategy that has to include things like testing, access to healthcare, and manual tracers.”