Contact tracing at work: A growing reality

Privacy news
3 mins
Wi-Fi symbol with a virus.

This post was originally published on January 7, 2021.

The emergence of contact-tracing apps to stem the spread of Covid-19 was met with skepticism and mistrust, with many individuals expressing wariness about the potential long-term privacy implications.

While individuals can opt out of contact-tracing apps if they believe their privacy is at risk, workers at factories and warehouses don’t always have a choice. A wave of new social-distance monitoring and worker-interaction tools are entering the workforce. Employees have to opt in or run the risk of losing their jobs.

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Workplace RFID tracing: From objects to humans

Companies like Austin-based Radiant RFID have pivoted their business model to deal with the new realities of the pandemic. Before Covid-19, Radiant RFID built tools to tag enterprise assets such as physical machinery and equipment. Its Bluetooth devices were stuck to valuable goods, which managers at a plant or warehouse could track through an app. The Texas Department of Public Safety, for example, used Radiant RFID’s solution to monitor over 1 billion USD worth of inventory spread across the state.

Now, however, Radiant RFID is actively marketing its contact-tracing abilities for workers rather than objects. In a press release, it says its new wave of solutions enablereturn-to-work strategies for companies in the automotive, aerospace, agricultural, CPG, entertainment, healthcare, manufacturing, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical industries.”

One of Radiant RFID’s products is a smartwatch that monitors its surroundings for other devices in the vicinity. Weak signals are left alone, but if a watch detects a strong signal for more than 15 minutes, it sends a notification of the interaction to a database in the cloud. The company claims its solution results in a 65% decrease in employee interactions within one week of implementation.

The smartwatch is able to send automated social-distancing compliance notifications while also relaying back data to a dashboard that managers have access to. The company says it’s enabled anonymous device-interaction history, allowing for contact tracing in the workplace.

But how anonymous can it be if the interactions can be tied back to specific workers?

Bluetooth, temperature sensors, and beyond

Radiant RFID has no shortage of takers. The Ford Motor Company is one of its clients, with Radiant RFID claiming it’s sold more than 10,000 smartwatches in the U.S. and that they’re struggling to keep up with demand.

Radiant RFID
Radiant’s Watch

There are other companies vying for this market too. Zebra, one of the largest RFID companies in the world, has a MotionWorks Proximity Solution that does something very similar to Radiant. Bluetooth beacons are attached to workers’ uniforms, which are then monitored through smartphone apps. Zebra is able to provide reports on which employees are coming into close proximity with each other while also sending warning notifications to employees’ phones.

Other than Bluetooth devices, thermal imaging is another category of equipment being used to detect and quell the possible spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. Dominated by companies such as Flir and Optris, the thermal-imaging market is expected to grow to 4.6 billion USD by 2025, or a compound annual growth rate of 6.2%. Thermal-imaging cameras are used for precise readings of body temperature and other leading indicators of a possible infection. Flir, for example, counts the Pentagon as one of its clients.

While such enhanced interaction-tracing apps and body-temperature sensors strive to keep workplaces free of Covid-19, the fact is they’re gathering an immense amount of healthcare and personally identifiable information with little to no oversight about how that data is stored, managed, or repurposed.

How your company might track you

It’s also not a stretch to say that such workplace tracking mechanisms will remain in place even after the elimination of the virus. Companies that find employees interacting with each other too frequently could send out automated warnings, reminding them to get back to work. Thermal imaging sensors could also increase in technological sophistication, allowing management to use heatmaps to determine how long employees spend at their desks and whether they’re idling on company time. Smartwatches such as those sold by Radiant RFID can be used to track things like heart rates and location history; while these are turned off for now, what’s to prevent companies from making them mandatory?

Has your company started to use contact tracing in the workplace? Let us know in the comments.

Read more: Biometric data collection around the world

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.