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As some countries declare the end of coronavirus community spread and plan for a safe return to work, surveillance technology appears to be becoming a much bigger part of the workplace. Already real-time computer vision and thermal cameras are beginning to enter the workplace to ensure social distancing or find people with elevated temperatures, and last week, PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) introduced automatic contact tracing called Check-In for enterprise businesses to track employees.
But contact tracing for large offices or businesses might look very different than solutions created for public health authorities such as that from a joint Apple-Google venture. Instead of sending a smartphone notification when a person tests positive, HR or company leadership can use the PwC service to generate a list of employees, assess employee contact risk levels, and contact employees considered most at risk of exposure. In this context, your company’s HR or crisis management officials take the role of contact tracers.
PwC also has no plans to share information about its solution with local public health officials. And it has no plans to integrate with open source Bluetooth protocols like the one from the TCN Coalition made for sharing contact events across multiple apps and services.
Depending on where you work, the solution may also be mandatory for employees, but it only tracks people within the geofenced confines of the workplace, PwC connected solutions and IoT lead Rob Mesirow told VentureBeat in a phone interview. Mesirow argues that if Fortune 1000 companies adopt a mandatory solution, it could be quickly adopted by tens of millions of people.
“You really want to have as close to 100% participation as you can possibly get to make contact tracing effective, and how do you do that? You do that inside an enterprise,” he said. “I think it’s a tall order outside the enterprise because of adoption. If it doesn’t work in a small island nation like Singapore that has a lot more influence and power over their population, it’s going to be very difficult for it to work in a country as large and free as the United States.”
PwC declined to share the number of clients who are using its solution but said associates are in talks with clients in retail, hospitality, factories, industrial environments, and financial services. Alongside prisons, cruise ships, and nursing homes, some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks to date in the U.S. have occurred in meat processing facilities, and that appears to be contributing to a growing COVID-19 case count. In one Iowa county, 90% of cases can be tied back to a Tyson meat processing plant.
Mesirow said he could see contact tracing solutions developing both inside and outside the workplace, but they might need each other in order to be truly effective.
The historic joint venture between Apple and Google that created interoperability between Android and iOS devices will not enable employers to track employees, since that data is being made available only to public health officials. A test version of Apple and Google’s solution launched this week, while an API for contact tracing apps is due out in the coming weeks. Consumers’ lack of trust in Apple and Google could be a barrier to adoption, according to a Washington Post poll released today. EU officials last week predicted that in order to be effective, contact tracing apps must reach adoption rates as high as 60%.
The Apple-Google solution, and others being developed by multinational coalitions, rely on decentralized Bluetooth contact tracing, while PwC’s solution uses a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Businesses may be highly incentivized to put contact tracing apps in place because there’s a lot at stake. A workplace COVID-19 outbreak can cause closures, kill clients or employees, reduce profits, interrupt supply chains, or continue community spread that lengthens shelter-in-place closures. There’s also the prospect of legal liability or negligence claims.
For their part, employees who believe a tracking app can help them feel safe — or who feel pressured to adopt tracking tech — may also be more likely to agree to download a dedicated app or more than a dozen PwC apps getting an SDK update to enable tracking. PwC’s solution can work on both employees’ personal devices and employer-issued hardware.
“Unlike a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. the employer is the main supplier for health care. So there’s some real skin in the game as it relates to protecting the health and well-being of our workforce,” Mesirow said.
Under ideal circumstances, a workplace contact tracing app could keep businesses from shutting down unnecessarily as a precaution when there’s a local case. But like contact tracing apps put forward by public health officials, workplace-linked automated contact tracing faces some immediately recognizable challenges and limitations. One office in a skyscraper using the solution, for example, could lead an employer to believe everything is fine while community spread settles in nearby, increasing the likelihood of widespread outbreak. Because many carriers are asymptomatic, the virus can spread without any indication that anything is wrong.
Though some states are already reopening establishments like restaurants and bowling alleys, areas like the San Francisco Bay Area will continue shelter-in-place orders for most jobs until June 1. Public health experts say some regions of the country won’t hit their peak number of COVID-19 cases for weeks, and that national testing capacity must quadruple before the United States economy can resume normal activity.
Other workplace solutions are also under development: Private Kit: Safe Paths, a contact tracing app out of MIT in conversations with several governments around the world, is being released as a Windows 10 version for the workplace.
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