From movement sensors to thermal testing, surveillance tech is booming as companies look to get people back to work
Faced with a suicide problem in Japan, some companies hired Enlighted to install sensors in their offices so they could make sure employees weren’t staying in the office for too long. The sensors are typically installed in light fixtures, about ten feet apart, and can detect not only the presence of employees – either by motion or through chips in their security badges – but where they go in the office. Managers are sent alerts if people work too many hours or spend too long on their own.
As countries around the world prepare to ease their coronavirus lockdowns and allow people to return to work, employers are rushing to kit out workplaces with tech to ensure they’re safe. But these moves also bring a new wave of surveillance that many employees may not be comfortable with: from artificial intelligence security cameras to thermal sensors.
Enlighted, a subsidiary of Siemens, is now pushing its software as a way to track people who may have coronavirus symptoms. Acting as a kind of contract tracing tool, the technology can monitor where infected employees have been, who they came in contact with, and which floors of an office they may have spread the virus in. Not only will executives know the extent of the exposure, but they can save money because they know specifically which rooms need a deep cleaning – so a whole 500,000 square foot facility doesn’t have to be cleaned every time an employee tests positive for Covid-19.
The system can also be used to institute social distancing. Today, companies want their spaces to be underutilised, for social distancing purposes. Managers can be alerted if too many employees are congregating in, say, a ten ten foot space. “In the case of Japan, we were looking to see if one employee badge was not close to any other badges. Maybe it wasn’t having meetings. It was introverted. That was a warning sign. In the current scenario, we want to make sure there aren’t too many badges in one place,” says Tanuj Mohan, chief technology officer and a co-founder of Enlighted.
The system, which is currently installed in the offices of some of the largest Fortune 500 companies as well as hospitals and an NHS clinic, uses the array of motion sensors that can pick up Bluetooth ‘beacons’ embedded in employee badges. So a nurse looking for a particular doctor or ultrasound machine can find them in a 500,000-square-foot hospital by calling up the system’s electronic map.
The rise in surveillance was inevitable. The UK government’s advice for employers preparing their workplaces for people to return to work says social distancing rules should be followed. People have to stay two metres apart, even inside. Those in offices are told to install floor markings, not print documents on paper and hand them to others, and where face-to-face contact is essential, limit it to 15 minutes or less.
Startup Landing AI has created a monitoring tool that issues an alert when anyone is less than the desired distance from a colleague. Using security footage, a trained neural network picks out people in the video, and another algorithm analyses the space between them. And earlier this month, Reutersreported Amazon is using similar software to keep tabs on whether warehouse employees are maintaining their distance.
As people return to normality contact tracing is being seen as one way to minimise re-emergence of the coronavirus. This involves finding out who someone confirmed to have coronavirus may have passed it on to.
Philadelphia-based Microshare has a product called “Universal Contact Tracing,” which, like Enlighted, has employees wear badges, key rings or wristbands that contain Bluetooth beacons. When these devices get near a device that can read the Bluetooth beacon, the information is recorded and then sent to a database, which can be searched later. There’s little evidence that this sort of contact tracing will be effective though.
Another route companies are taking to monitor employees is the use of thermal cameras that can take employees’ temperature – in some cases as they walk into a building. The cameras take a reading near a person’s eyes. If a fever is detected, an alert can be issued and a person sent home. It has been suggested the cameras could be used in the food industry, border crossings and at hospitals.
In the UK, Bournemouth Airport has said it will trial the technology when more of its flights resume. Amazon has also announced that it would be using no-contact thermal thermometers to check employees at the entrances of its European and U.S. warehouses as well as its Whole Foods stores.
One big unanswered coronavirus question is whether it travels via air. Scientists are currently unsure whether Covid-19 can be spread via airborne transmission, although it has been found on particles of air pollution. Despite the lack of evidence, indoor air quality monitoring services have seen a spike in interest from companies wanting their employees to return to work.
“We’ve gotten a lot of requests from companies trying to understand what they can do right now, while people are away, what kind of tools and devices can we integrate into our office spaces to make sure air quality is good once people are back,” says Laura Lian, the head of marketing at air quality monitoring firm Kaiterra, which has sensors in residential homes in the UK, as well as in the British Embassy and the Milliken office in London. Lian adds that inquiries are up as much as 40 per cent.
“Everyone is really interested in preparing their spaces, and they’re trying to find ways to create confidence in people to come back,” says Serene al-Momen, CEO of Senseware. “This technology is a concrete way to create a healthier environment and for these buildings to show to their tenants that it’s safe to come back.”
Building trust is key for getting employees back to work. Len Pisano, a consultant for smart technology in buildings says that adding more sensors to buildings is about “space optimisation”. Old building technology will still be used by companies as they attempt to incorporate newer systems. “The new normal is to use the data to try to get people back in buildings,” Pisano adds. “And these sensor network solutions are going to be a big part of that.”
“In some places, it’s not about controlling anything, like temperature or humidity, but on giving data so the company can come up with the best plan around cleaning and where and how to deploy resources,” he adds.
But it’s that collection of data, whether for cleaning or contact tracing, that is raising privacy concerns. While the technology will enable people to get back to work, will they feel more surveilled?
Some privacy advocates already believe it does. Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, a London-based charity that defends privacy rights, says technical solutions such as these will only exacerbate the existing inequalities for those occupations already under a lot of surveillance – and that have little job security – such as delivery drivers and those working in warehouses or call centres. The data generated from this technology can now be used to target and sanction these employees, Hosein adds.
“This is a perfect storm of opportunistic vendors trying to profit off employers’ fears; and employers’ terrified of loss of further income, seeking solace in tech solutions,” Hosein said. “But ‘solutions’ such as this come in a wider context of increased workplace monitoring and surveillance. They bring promises of efficiency and productivity but with little regard for workers rights and well-being.”
Michael Weinhold, the CTO of Siemens Smart Infrastructure, says the company is aware of the debate around data privacy. “When you introduce new technologies, it can be a balancing act between what is feasible, legally defined and ethically justifiable,” he says. “It is a moral and societal debate.”
Accuracy is important, if you’re telling people not to come to the office because they’ve been exposed to someone with coronavirus. Hosein questions whether much of the current technology can be accurately relied upon when it comes to making decisions about what people can and can’t do – in particular, temperature scanning is a concern. A woman’s bodily temperature can change during a menstruation cycle, for instance.
In its new sensor platform, which will have many of the metrics that indicate virus, Senseware actually left body temperature off of it – for now – because officials there said the infrared cameras currently have a margin of error of about three degrees.
“The truth of this environment is that you could be forced to lose income because of erroneous tech and data,” Hosein says. “The idea of putting sensors throughout the workplace has long been an ambition of employers seeking to control their workers and monitor efficiency. This appears to be the latest excuse.”
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