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Workplace Safety Is Changing the Dialogue About Data Privacy

Surveillance and tracking technology has long been a topic of debate, especially in relation to work settings. Just ask Humanyze, a tech company founded by MIT graduates that got a bad rap for building wearable badges for employees to collect data to improve productivity. After an ominous video about them was released, they were scrutinized by privacy advocates. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another layer of complexity to the data privacy debate. Many employees are concerned that the tracking technology being used by companies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 will actually be used to spy on them instead. 

But without this technology, it will be difficult for companies to guarantee they are doing everything in their power to protect the safety of their employees. It’s a double edged sword. Employees don’t want to share additional data, but they also don’t want to return to an environment where they could be exposed to unnecessary risks. Companies face several challenges like whether or not to continue implementing remote work policies and to what degree, how to make their offices safe and compliant, the logistics of implementing return to work policies, and the perception of employees throughout this whole process.

The general consensus for return to work protocols has been to bring people back to the office in phases to maintain social distancing and monitor density. But even with less people in the office, companies need a way to mitigate potential outbreaks within the office by isolating the source. For this reason, some companies are looking at contact tracing, a technology that uses location data to determine an individual’s risk of exposure. If an employee has symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracing gives employers the ability to notify anyone else who may have come in contact with that person, which can mitigate large scale outbreak and the need to demobilize the entire workforce. Some experts believe contact tracing has the potential to be a multibillion dollar industry, meaning that it could be widely accepted and deployed by companies throughout the world. 

Contact tracing works by using location data to track where employees are in regards to one another, but there are a couple of different ways this can be done. The first is through a smartphone app, like the one being developed by the Apple/Google collaboration, which will be non-profit. Therefore, companies can’t use it to monitor employees because they won’t have access to the data they need. Another app, developed by accounting and consulting firm PwC, is already being used in their Shanghai location, but the product is also being marketed and sold to other businesses. The app uses bluetooth and wifi for its contact tracing technology and does not track employees’ locations outside of the office. PwC recently produced a report on global privacy strategies related to the pandemic, which explained that in order to maintain employee privacy, contact tracing apps ought to “keep geolocation data anonymous and encrypted.”   

Another technology that monitors contact tracing are wearable badges. Ironically, badges like those created by Humanyze, which created so much ire before the pandemic, could be the solution to actually protecting employees’ privacy. This method of contact tracing does not require the use of personal smartphones to track an individual’s location. Instead, some of these wearable bluetooth bages like the ones created by Microshare, a tech company that provides a suite of sensor-based data products, actually run on a LoRaWAN network. This end-to-end network provides long range connectivity for IoT (Internet of Things) devices at relatively low infrastructure costs. Michael Moran, the Chief Risk & Sustainability Officer and Director of Communications at Microshare, explained the benefits of using LoRaWAN. “Because these devices run on a separate network from the company’s wifi, it reduces the threat of data breaches. It also means companies don’t have to ask their employees to use their personal devices or their personal cell phone coverage, which can be tricky to navigate,” says Moran. 

Wearable badges provide an alternative for companies who see the ethical implications that could arise from asking employees to share location data based on cell phone information. Moran explains, “As long as there is full transparency, wearing the badge is an indication that the employee has given consent for their whereabouts to be cross referenced with the whereabouts of other employees for their mutual safety.” A lot of companies are concerned about the perception of collecting location health information and data, but they also want to keep employees safe. “We’re working with a lot of big companies, global companies, that are concerned with the ethical issues and liabilities that come up. These companies have reputations to uphold when it comes to treating their staff properly,” Moran said. Perception is reality, goes the saying. Even if the same information is being gathered, employees may feel more comfortable using a badge than their personal devices.     

Getting workers back to the office safely is a critical step in the pandemic recovery strategy. Still, other kinds of businesses like venues, retailers, restaurants, and hospitality providers also need to find ways for employees to return to work safely. It so happens, there’s an app for that, too. And it doesn’t require tracking location data. Erika Wasser and Eric Phelan are the co-founders of Prospr At Work, an app that provides tools for hourly, shift-based workers like scheduling shift coverage and e-sign capabilities. “Now, we’ve introduced Prospr Safe, which allows employers to customize a pre-shift symptom checklist and temperature checks based on CDC or state guidelines,” says Wasser. This gives companies the ability to determine what information they are going to collect. “Employers are alerted if someone is having symptoms or fails a temperature check. They can then use the app to cross reference that employee’s schedule for overlap with others to determine exposure, and that process will soon be automated,” explains Wasser. 

Even though these technologies all support health and safety, some still fear that the data collected will infringe on employees’ privacy. However, both Prospr Safe and contact tracing are fairly benign when compared to some of the other technologies employers have been using to monitor remote workers since the stay-at-home mandates began. Software like Hubstaff and Time Doctor allow employers to record things like the websites an employee visits, keyboard strokes, and mouse clicks. Time Doctor even enables the employee’s webcam on their computer to take a snapshot of them every ten minutes. This software also gives employers the ability to dock your pay by automating a “clock-out” if your computer is idle for too long. 

In some cases, it’s easy to see why employees feel like they’re being watched. Because in some cases, they literally are. Some companies may go to the extreme to track their workers, but in many cases, employers are just trying to do the right thing and get their people back to work. They are simply trying to navigate a difficult circumstance with integrity by keeping employees safe while still providing jobs. Data collection is a byproduct of being a society that is technologically advanced enough to track and record even the smallest minutiaes of daily life. But it is that same technological advancement that will continue to provide solutions for life’s many problems, including pandemics.  

Assistant Editor
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