Contact-Tracing Apps Can Keep Tabs on Coronavirus

By John Egan May 12, 2020
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​Necessity, as the proverb goes, is the mother of invention. As employers grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, the need to boost workplace safety is prompting the invention of a number of social-distancing and contact-tracing apps.

While developers laud the ability of these apps to ease the spread of the novel coronavirus in workplaces, privacy advocates warn about their potentially intrusive nature.

In an April survey of U.S. chief financial officers by New York City-based professional services firm PwC US, 22 percent indicated their businesses planned to incorporate contact tracing into their workplace-reopening plans. Through contact tracing, public health officials and others can track down people who might have been exposed to someone infected by the coronavirus.

Americans are divided about contact-tracing apps, though.

A poll taken in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows only about half of Americans are willing to download an app that alerts them if they come into contact with somebody who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Another poll, this one conducted in April by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland, also found Americans who own smartphones are evenly split on the issue. Fifty percent of smartphone users indicated they were OK with downloading an app being developed by Apple and Google that would allow people diagnosed with the virus to anonymously report their infection. The app would then alert others that they've been in close proximity to someone diagnosed with the coronavirus.

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However, one in six Americans do not have a smartphone, meaning a significant portion of the population would not be able to use the app.

Aside from the Apple-Google project, technology efforts underway to combat the coronavirus in the workplace include:

  • The Work.com platform, introduced in early May by San Francisco-based Salesforce, a provider of software for customer relationship management. Among the elements of Work.com is a contact-tracing function. Employers would manually collect data from workers who have the coronavirus (or another infectious disease) or who might have been exposed. Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce, told Fox Business that this component of Work.com will allow employers to inform workers about coronavirus exposure in the workforce and permit isolation of infected workers.
  • PwC's Check-In platform, which features automatic contact-tracing capabilities. Through this platform, large companies can identify and alert employees who might have come into contact with a co-worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • The Social Safety app, developed by New York City-based consulting firm FROM, The Digital Transformation Agency. This social-distancing app helps employees stay six feet away from each other in the workplace. The employee-installed app warns workers, through methods such as beeps and vibrations, when they've broken that six-foot barrier. The app also maintains a secure, private record of close contact, allowing notification of the workforce in case of a coronavirus exposure.

Howard Tiersky, founder, president and CEO of FROM, says employers will have to decide whether to require employees to use these kinds of apps. However, he says the technology will be less effective if employees can opt in or opt out.

"This is a safety device," Tiersky said, "and for most employers safety is not optional. Construction workers are not permitted to opt out of wearing hard hats, for example."

Tiersky said the Social Safety app stores very little personal data about each employee—just their name and a log of social-distancing interactions. It doesn't monitor specific locations and generally doesn't operate outside the workplace, he says.

"Each employer will have to make their own decisions," Tiersky said, "but our point of view is that this is very limited data to be collecting and that it falls within an employer's general right to monitor their employees' work activity."

An employer can mask an employee's identity by assigning an anonymous number to them, he says, and can even turn off the interaction-tracking function.

Despite such safeguards, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes digital privacy, raises concerns about the privacy and effectiveness of social-distancing and contact-tracing apps. These apps pose risks to individual privacy and civil liberties, the group says, and they can't make up for a lack of personal protective gear, rapid testing and proven treatments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes the choice to use these apps should rest with individual users.

PwC urges employers to review their privacy rules as they weigh the use of contact-tracing and social-distancing apps.

Pittsburgh labor and employment attorney Jenn Betts, co-chair of the technology practice at Atlanta-based law firm Ogletree Deakins, recommends that employers check the latest guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission related to employees' medical information. She also suggests that employers form a team of decision-makers, such as HR professionals, lawyers and IT experts, to lead contact-tracing initiatives in the workplace.

Betts says HR professionals should ask these questions before launching digital or traditional contact tracing:

  • Will it be voluntary or mandatory for employees?
  • What will the consequences be for an employee who refuses to comply with mandatory tracing?
  • What types of data will be collected?
  • Will data be collected only when an employee is in the workplace?
  • How will the data be stored?
  • Who will have access to the data?
  • What security measures are in place to protect the data?
  • How long will the data be kept?
  • Will the data be shared with government health agencies?
  • Which local, state and federal laws apply to gathering this data?

"There's a lot of what I would call 'issue spotting' that you need to go through before you look at rolling out one of these tools in the workplace, and you want to make sure that you've properly vetted it," Betts said. "This isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. What makes sense for one workplace may not make sense for another one."

But if it does make sense, these tools can fit nicely into an employer's coronavirus toolbox.

Rob Mesirow, a technology principal at PwC's office in Washington, D.C., says the firm's Check-In platform can save time when employers confront coronavirus cases in the workplace and might head off outbreaks.

"If you understand how contact tracing is done, it's laborious. It's a highly manual process, and it could take hours, if not days, to complete a single trace," Mesirow said.

PwC's contact-tracing app records a user's proximity to other people within the workplace based on Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi signals. That data then can be viewed only by authorized company representatives, enabling notification of workers who were around somebody infected with the coronavirus.

PwC initially tested Check-In at its office in Shanghai, China, and planned to roll out the technology in other offices this month.

To bolster employee privacy, PwC layered this technology on top of its privacy framework and sought input from an employment law firm, according to Mesirow.

Mesirow says it's within the rights of U.S. employers "to mandate that somebody download this application and have it on their mobile device while they are in the workplace—if they want to come back to work."

Nonetheless, he adds, it's best to educate employees about the need for this technology and to gain buy-in from them rather than forcing adoption of it. This sort of technology probably will become "standard operating procedure" for large employers, Mesirow said, but small employers might not benefit from it since old-fashioned contact tracing wouldn't be a heavy burden for them.

"At the end of the day," Mesirow said, "these are unprecedented times, and this is a very noninvasive way to protect yourself and protect your co-workers and protect your loved ones."

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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