For the past few years, Estimote has sold wireless tracking beacons to companies including Amazon, Apple, and Nike, promising a more precise way to map the movement of products, equipment, and people—all in the name of boosting productivity and efficiency.
Now Estimote is touting its wearable beacons as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus. A new analytics package will help managers pinpoint high-touch areas for cleaning, show them when workers flout workplace social distancing rules, and identify those who need to quarantine after a colleague tests positive.
As businesses across the US scramble to restart operations and breathe life into a cratering economy, many are exploring both low- and high-tech solutions to keeping workers safe. Masks, sanitizer, and plexiglass sneeze barriers are increasingly common; some also are turning to technology such as temperature-sensing cameras and apps that require workers to report their symptoms and possible exposure.
Now the makers of technology for tracking objects and people are hoping to seize on the opportunity. They are repurposing and repackaging their beacons and software as tools to track workers’ movements inside workplaces. But it’s not clear how many takers there are, and some public health experts question how effective the measures will really be. Privacy experts also warn that the trend could further erode personal privacy.
“A lot of these things can be akin to ‘security theater,’” says Shweta Bansal, a professor at Georgetown University who uses computational methods to model the spread of disease. Bansal says a system that tracks workers’ movements may be useful to figure out who has been in close contact with a person who’s tested positive for the coronavirus. But she’s skeptical that the technology will keep workers safe.
Some employers, including several big tech companies, hope to keep workers safe by having them work remotely. Google and Facebook have said many workers will stay home until 2021. Twitter plans to make some remote work permanent. But Apple, in contrast, is looking to bring more of its workers back to offices.
In many industries, including manufacturing, logistics, and retail, remote work isn’t an option. In those settings, workplace surveillance has already gained a foothold for other reasons. For example, Locix, which sells a system that uses WiFi to identify the location of beacons in warehouses, is now marketing its tech as a way to maintain social distancing, identify high-touch areas, and find people who may have been exposed to Covid-19. Smartvid.io, which sells surveillance cameras that monitor construction sites for safety hazards, has repurposed the tech for Covid-19, and is supplying it to construction companies as a way to ensure workers stay a safe distance apart.
Terex, a maker of industrial equipment and machinery, has been using a Covid app developed by Tulip, which makes software for monitoring manufacturing lines. The app asks workers to report any symptoms before coming into work, and integrates with temperature checkpoints.
But Audra Kirkland, director of digital marketing at Terex, says the company is not tracking workers because the benefits are unclear, and the practice might run afoul of data protection regulations in Europe. “I know some companies are putting RFID tags on people,” she says. “We’re trying to ensure we protect the privacy of workers.”
It’s rarer to find such technology in offices, but that may change post-Covid.
Density, for instance, sells a device that counts people passing through hallways and doorways. Normally this might be used to gauge the popularity of a particular meeting room. Now the company offers a version that will automatically alert workers when a room is too crowded to allow for safe social distancing. A selling point for Density is that it promises a measure of privacy protection because it doesn’t identify individuals.
“There are going to be systems that are deployed in literally every building that monitor behavior,” says Density CEO Andrew Farrah. “And it's just a question of how deep down the surveillance rabbit hole we go.”
Other companies are offering cameras and computer vision algorithms as a solution. PointGrab, an Israeli company that sells ceiling cameras for monitoring workplace activity, is now pitching its technology as a Covid solution.
Surveillance technology has been creeping into workplaces for some time, primarily as software that monitors workers’ activity on computers. The shift to watching the workers themselves has support in high places: Guidance for reopening businesses issued by the White House includes the call for employers to “monitor workers.”
Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in tech policy and ethics, warns that new surveillance measures may persist long after the threat of the pandemic has waned, opening the door to tactics that feel oppressive and are open to abuse.
“People get acclimated to drones and metal detectors during the Olympics or World Cup and low and behold, the tech lingers past its initial justification,” Calo says. “It’s a form of mission creep.”
Bansal of Georgetown says companies should be aware that bringing people back to workplaces will put others at risk, so the decision should not be taken lightly, especially when the technology to protect people is unproven. “I would advocate that they really consider the implications of their response for essential workers like the janitorial staff, service staff, and maintenance workers,” she says.