CORONA TECH: TEMPERATURE CHECKS REACH FEVER PITCH
North Carolina’s local TV news channel captures a construction worker pushing his fringe out of his eyes while a temperature gun is pointed at his forehead. This has become a daily routine at the JE Dunn construction site in the US city of Charlotte. When workers arrive each morning, they must exchange their temperature reading and filled-out health questionnaire answers for a sticker declaring them fit for work.
In the US, temperature checks are incentivised by White House guidelines asking employers to monitor their “workforce for indicative symptoms”. But the use of this technology is becoming standard in many workplaces across the world despite concerns that they create a false sense of security. The World Health Organisation says it is still an " open question" whether the large number of people infected with Covid-19 who show no symptoms (and as such, have no temperature) can spread the virus.
Yet companies continue to use temperature checks to create a sense of safety among employees and customers as economies reopen. In India, the food delivery service, Behrouz Biryani, takes daily readings of its employees’ temperatures, then prints them on receipts to ensure “consumer confidence”, the chain’s parent-company told Vice.
Fever detection technology can take the form of low-tech temperature guns or, as at the sandwich chain Subway, can be incorporated into CCTV systems and paired with facial recognition to create smart surveillance. Other companies are experimenting with different varieties of so-called “corona-tech”, such as contact-tracing systems, digital immunity "passports" or wearables that issue an alert if workers don’t stay socially distanced.
When using tech to combat the coronavirus, private companies bypass many of the hurdles encountered by governments: there is often less scrutiny and employees receive few details about how their health data will be used and how it will be kept. Many employers do not share governments’ queasiness about tracking citizens’ location. Estimote is just one US startup selling wearables that track employees’ location so companies can carry out contact tracing in the workplace.
Workplaces are also less reticent about making these tools mandatory. Rob Mesirow, who has been working on PwC’s corporate contact-tracing system, told the Financial Times: “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.”
That attitude risks creating a scenario where coronavirus tracking is mandatory – not by law but by default. In India, for example, though Narendra Modi’s administration decided the country’s contact-tracing app would remain voluntary, digital rights group The Internet Democracy Project found the app was still being made mandatory by employers – with Food delivery giant Zomato and car manufacturing company Tata Motors telling workers they had to download the app if they wanted to come back to work.
Examples like these have created a nervousness in Germany, which launched its own contact-tracing app earlier in June. The country’s Green Party has now submitted a draft law in an attempt to make sure no one can be forced to use the country’s new contact-tracing app. The justice minister, Christine Lambrecht, has said she’s sceptical – declaring the Greens’ concerns “hypothetical”.
HOW WELL DO YOU WASH YOUR HANDS? THESE THREE COMPANIES WANT TO CHECK
From employees’ temperatures to handwashing. Companies producing once-niche technology that can detect whether people are washing their hands correctly are now marketing their products to businesses trying to keep their workplaces virus-free. Here are three companies pursuing better hygiene:
🇯🇵 Japanese company, Fujitsu, says its handwashing AI can check if people are following the six-step handwashing procedure recommended by the government that asks people to scrub their fingernails, between their fingers and wash their thumbs. The technology is based on crime-surveillance that can detect “suspicious” body movements.
🇮🇱 The company, Soapy, has been offering its handwashing stations at a reduced rate during the pandemic. The Israeli firm’s technology combines facial recognition and an information hub so employers can see detailed data about who isn’t using enough – or any – soap.
🇺🇸 Apple Watch has also announced a new feature for its Smartwatch that can detect handwashing movements while listening for sounds of soap and water to make sure people wash hands for 20 seconds.
WEEKLY WEB ROUND UP
- Another week, another contact-tracing app. Japan launches Cocoa (Covid-19 Contact-Confirming Application) and sees 2.7 million downloads in the first two days.
- In May, three US representatives and two US senators launched the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, which is designed to protect personal data collected in connection with Covid-19 from being used for non-public health purposes.
- Watch Edward Snowden and Naomi Klein discuss the surveillance pandemic on YouTube here.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Our latest Track(ed) Together story focused on the increasingly tense dynamic between Big Tech and governments as they clash over contact-tracing apps. Read it here. See you next week!