“How bad do you want to work?”
Besides vaccines, “contact tracing” apps have been touted by experts and governments as another effective tool to address the spread of coronavirus in order to allow people to regain the right to leave their homes.
The idea is to have people install an app on their phones, and this app will function in the background, monitoring and logging interactions with every other phone in close proximity that also has the app installed.
This, they say, will allow health officials to know who came into contact with infected people.
Now something even more intrusive is being developed for the workplace.
Businesses could track the spread of coronavirus when they re-open through using contact-tracing apps currently in development.
At least three companies are creating surveillance apps for private firms, which may allow employers to retrace the steps of an infected worker.
Employers would be able to track how many people the infected staff member interacted with and make them isolate to prevent further spread.
Firms could also use the trackers to scrub down surfaces which the infected worker may have handled – including photocopiers, water coolers or elevator buttons.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is one company looking at making a contact-tracing app.
The consulting giant says businesses should make its tool mandatory because the apps need to be used by a majority to get the full benefit.
“The majority of people need to use the app to get the full benefit” is an argument that can — and most likely will — also be used by governments to make use of contact tracing apps mandatory outside of the workplace. Most likely, the government will just order Google and Apple to make this a default in the operating system itself.
Rob Mesirow, head of PwC’s connected solutions practice, told the FT: ‘You really need a majority of people to do this.
‘US Businesses are going to have to [tell employees]: If you’re going to come back to the work environment, you need this app on your phone.’
Governments can also tell people: “if you want to be allowed to leave your home again, you need this app on your phone.”
PwC’s solution – a mobile app called Automatic Contact Tracing – will not be rolled out until the start of May.
The firm says it can ‘collect proximity information anonymously’. In the event someone tests positive, human resources would enter their information into the system.
Within seconds, the app would then reveal all the workers who had come into contact with the patient.
It categorises people into high, medium and low-risk based on the time they spent with the infected worker and how close they were to them.
But PwC admitted it would be down to employers to preserve the privacy of their staff.
Silicon Valley-based start-up Locix is also looking at creating a contact-tracing app to sell to private companies.
It already offers services for businesses looking to boost productivity, including one that provides an ‘accurate, real-time location‘ of workers using WiFi technology.
The firm boasts that its existing toll is ‘ultra-precise’ and accurate within centimetres ‘in indoor and outdoor environments’.
Details of its tracing app are unclear but Locix’s chief executive said it would allow a company to retrace the steps of an infected employee.
This would allow cleaners to know exactly which surfaces to decontaminate, as well as inform colleagues who may have unknowingly been in contact.
Vik Pavate, chief executive of Locix, told the FT: ‘Contact is not only with people but in spaces… it’s ‘where have you been’ and ‘how long did you dwell there?’.’
Microshare, a tech start-up based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has also developed its own system, called Universal Contact Tracing.
But instead of relying on a smartphone, it gives employees Bluetooth-enabled key-rings, badges or wristbands to track their movements.
The firm says these devices record when they come into contact with another and upload the ‘encounters’ to a central database.
This information ‘is stored in a secure database that is searchable and auditable for historic patterns’, Microshare says on its website.
The firm said phone-based tracing apps may not always work in some industries where mobiles are prohibited – such as in hospitals, prisons and schools.
People are already living like prisoners because of the lockdown and social distancing rules, and they want to force workers to wear some kind of ankle monitors disguised as key-rings, badges, or wristbands.
The same argument about phone-based apps not being ideal for all situations is already being applied outside of the workplace.
Experts have already warned that phone-based solutions won’t work for about two billion people whose phones don’t have the technology to run the apps. We predicted that the solution to that “problem” will be some kind of cheaper microchip that governments can easily distribute.
“You need this mark in order to work.”
This workplace contact-tracing “wristbands” thing is getting very close.