Welcome Back to the Office. Please Wear This Tracking Device.

A boom in contact tracing devices could herald a new era of worker surveillance

Photo illustration sources: PwC; Iv__design/Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Before April, Radiant RFID, a 16-year-old tech company based in Austin, was mainly in the business of tracking equipment around the workplace. Radiant’s tags, which can use Bluetooth or GPS, can be stuck to anything valuable, like a crash cart in a hospital or a specialty tool in an auto manufacturing plant. Then, the object’s location can be constantly tracked through Radiant’s website or app.

But the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the company to stand up an entirely new business: tracking worker interactions.

Radiant now sells a stripped-down Samsung smartwatch as a social distance monitoring tool. When an employee wears the watch, it constantly searches for other similar devices worn by other employees, and estimates their distance based on how strong that signal is. If a strong signal is detected for more than 15 minutes, the interaction is recorded and uploaded to the cloud for the company to reference later if a worker tests positive. In addition, an employer can opt to use the device to monitor the specific location of individual employees.

The watches were initially designed for workers in auto manufacturing in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, CEO Kenny Ratton told OneZero. (It’s been reported that Radiant currently has a contract with Ford, but Radiant would not confirm that to OneZero.) Since then, Ratton says, Radiant has sold more than 10,000 of these smartwatches to companies across the United States in education, warehouses, and production plants, and claims that it can’t keep up with demand.

Companies like Radiant are revamping their product lines to help employers monitor workers’ movements and interactions with colleagues.

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a gold rush for companies selling surveillance technology as an immediate solution to a new slate of challenges. Are workers healthy? Are they keeping a safe distance from one another? Companies like FLIR now sell thermal imaging cameras to check people’s temperatures from a distance, while others hawk facial recognition systems to replace fingerprint sensors and keep people from transmitting germs on shared surfaces.

Companies like Radiant are revamping their product lines to help employers monitor workers’ movements and interactions with colleagues. These companies include Radiant RFID, Airista Flow, and Kinexon, and even accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was already developing its own location tracking technology before the pandemic.

“If you go onto any [location tracking] vendor website now, the first thing you’ll see is their response to Covid-19 and what their offerings are. There is an opportunity there, as morbid as it sounds,” says Andrew Zignani, an analyst for ABI Research, which tracks wireless communication industries and other digital transformation.

Contact tracing wearables are a new step in workplace surveillance. Rather than a facial recognition or thermal imaging scan at a security checkpoint, these devices must be carried around a workplace at all times. They can capture an immense amount of information, including health data.

Companies in the space each have their own standards, intricacies, and abilities. For example, Airista Flow only tracks the proximity between two individuals. (That doesn’t mean, however, that an employee’s location is not divulged: When the data is uploaded to one of the wireless access points, an employer can see which access point that data was uploaded through, giving a rough estimate of where an employee has been.)

Both analysts and companies who spoke to OneZero said businesses investing in this technology now aren’t just looking at the short term. They’re considering how location tracking could be used after the pandemic. Some envision these trackers moving from people to machinery or other nonhuman objects that need to be tracked, while others see workplaces where employees are physically tracked from the moment they walk into the door.

From time clock punch cards to RFID access cards, workplace tracking has traditionally focused on whether an employee is present at work or not. Physically tracking individual workers has, until now, been reserved for high-risk workplaces like health care and construction because the promise of a safer working environment has outweighed potential privacy concerns. That said, digital surveillance of white-collar and remote workers, which includes tracking their locations and what they type, has recently been on the rise.

But now that every office, manufacturing plant, fulfillment center, and sports arena carries an immensely elevated risk due to the coronavirus, physically tracking employees may be going mainstream.

The NFL, for instance, has turned to a Munich, Germany-based company called Kinexon to supply it with contact tracing wearables. Kinexon’s devices are square white chips smaller than a pack of gum, that can be clipped into a wristband or tucked into a pocket. The league uses more than 25,000 of the trackers, which are assigned to each player, coach, and staff member.

Kinexon previously worked with NFL teams, as well as the NBA, to study how players moved, calculating their performance in real time. Now, those same devices have been retrofitted with an additional LED light that can alert to social distancing violations. The devices track the identity of the wearer, and who that person is near.

Kinexon told OneZero that it’s selling a similar contact tracing product to more than 200 other clients, including industrial and manufacturing firms.

Other firms that have historically built tools to physically track employees are designing them for contact tracing purposes. For the last 10 years, nurses and mental health professionals around the country have worn a small, white tracker made by a company called Airista Flow.

The league uses more than 25,000 of the trackers, which are assigned to each player, coach, and staff member.

Airista’s tags operate in more than 200 hospitals and 500 health care facilities and are attached to everything from health care workers, to IV pumps in hospitals, to dementia patients, in order to actively track where expensive machinery is and make sure patients don’t wander away. The company’s core business is tracking location.

Airista’s employee tracker is a tiny disc, about the size of a half-dollar, is worn on the wrist or a lanyard around the neck. When the tracker’s single button is pressed, it pings wireless access points all around the building, using the signal strength from each one to triangulate exactly where the person is located, and then send a distress call to the proper channels and calls for help.

Before the pandemic, Airista developed proximity tags to promote hygiene. In addition to the location-specific tags being carried by nurses, the proximity tags were installed in soap dispenser stations. When the trackers were close to each other and recognized the motion of hand-washing, it recorded a successful hand wash.

Now that protocol has been adapted to register when two health care workers are within six feet for a certain amount of time and then chirps if it records an interaction.

In April, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers also introduced its own contact tracing solutions, in the form of an app and two kinds of stand-alone trackers.

Robert Mesirow, a partner and lead for internet of things at PwC, says that the company was already developing indoor location tracking technology using Bluetooth when positive coronavirus cases started popping up in one of the company’s large Manhattan offices. It repurposed that project’s technology in order to start tracking its own employees, and then expanded it as a new line of business.

The company sells a few options for employee tracking: An app for a smartphone, a stand-alone wireless proximity beacon for jobs where cellphones aren’t allowed, and a smaller tag for visitors or guests. Each of these options are outfitted for contact tracing, and the Check-In service can track whether a worker is in the office or working remotely, though they are unable to do room-level tracking. Mesirow says that there are about 60 other companies that are currently using PwC’s contact tracing and social distancing technology, though he declined to name them.

PwC employees are required to install the app on their phones if they want to work from the office. To limit the feeling that the company is tracking its employees everywhere they go, the app is designed to only activate when an employee’s phone is in the workplace. The app sends a notification when entering an area designated by the company as a physical office or workplace.

“When you walk into a geofenced area, [a notification] is going to pop up and say we’re going to begin the scanning process for contact tracing, thank you for helping keep the workplace safe,” Mesirow said.

All four companies who spoke to OneZero said that ultimately the employer chooses the degree of employee surveillance.

Airista Flow’s VP of marketing Vince Grove told OneZero that companies could assign ID numbers instead of staff members’ names when assigning devices. But the decision is totally up to the employer.

Kinexon recommends that just one person has access to the contact tracing data, and in the case of the NFL, that’s the chief infection officer of each team.

Radiant RFID chose to sell self-sufficient smartwatches, rather than an app on the phone, to protect workers’ personal data. Ratton says that the smartwatch cannot connect to the employee’s phone, and reports data directly over Wi-Fi. The smartwatch’s various sensors, like heart rate monitoring and GPS, are also turned off by default.

“When you walk into a geofenced area, [a notification] is going to pop up and say we’re going to begin the scanning process for contact tracing, thank you for helping keep the workplace safe.”

Sarah Kreps, a professor of government and law at Cornell University, specifically researched issues surrounding privacy and the adoption of contact tracing technology earlier this year.

“All of the research that we’ve done shows privacy is the most important consideration for people when they think about adopting these surveillance measures,” Kreps told OneZero. “And they’re willing to trade away some privacy, but only up to a limit.”

Kreps surveyed Americans to determine whether they were comfortable adopting certain kinds of public health surveillance, ranging from temperature checks to CCTV cameras and drones. Her team found that 44% of the 2,000 respondents would be comfortable with contact tracing wearables.

And any adoption of workplace surveillance technology — even if it’s to address an immediate concern — could have long term implications, long after the coronavirus pandemic is resolved. While the trackers may no longer be useful for contact tracing, they could still be used for tracking expensive equipment or patients in a hospital or even employees, whether for safety or productivity reasons.

Grove, from Airista, stresses that even though they reprogrammed their hardware for use in the pandemic, the devices can still be used beyond that.

“You can use all the same infrastructures and tags, we just turn on a new use case in our cloud,” Grove said. “When you were tracking guests and employees in a hotel, now you can use them as a panic button [for cleaning staff]. Retailers can now use them for tracking inventory on shelves.”

Radiant CEO Ratton has even bigger ambitions for wearables in the workplace.

He envisions reports of broken printers being filed on the fly from employees’ wrists, made possible because the wearable knows it’s near that specific printer. Or a manufacturing plant where employees can order more of a specific part, and the request is delivered to the right location because the wearable knows where they are.

“It’s the PC of the ’90s rolling into the office environment,” Ratton said.

Update: This piece has been updated to clarify how PricewaterhouseCoopers’ contact tracing technology works.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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