Apr 30, 2020

COVID-19 tracing apps might not be optional at work

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Downloading an app to trace contacts within your building might become the new norm.

By now, you may have heard a lot about digital contact tracing, which is basically an app that can tell you if you’ve been close to someone who has COVID-19. Apple and Google are launching an app together, and some universities have created them, too. 

There are big concerns about privacy and effectiveness. So far, apps like this have been voluntary, but they might be required soon — not by the government, but by your company. The global consulting firm PwC is actually selling a suite of health-tracking products that includes an automatic contact-tracing tool.

I spoke with David Sapin, who is with the connected solutions division of PwC. He says companies need to track the health of their employees — and they want to. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

David Sapin (Photo courtesy of Sapin)

David Sapin: This is technology that we’ve been working with for the past three or four years. Over the past six weeks, we’ve modified that technology and tailored it for this specific use case. First and foremost, so that we could solve an issue that we ran into at the beginning of the pandemic, which is: how could we, as a firm, better identify and more quickly identify those employees who came in contact with someone with COVID-19? We quickly determined that this is something that we could take out to our clients. We do intend to deploy this ourselves once we’re back in the office.

Molly Wood: Does it seem likely, though, that companies will just mandate it? It does seem like it’s almost one of the conditions in terms of risk management for people to get back into a big building full of people.

Sapin: I think people have gotten more comfortable, certainly with our solution and the discussions that we’ve been having in terms of the technology controls we’ve put in place to really limit the privacy invasion. I think also people are beginning to realize you’re going to need to have something like this in order to come back into the workplace. I think this is one thing that if you want to work from home and continue to work from home, and that’s OK with your job responsibilities, that’s fine. But if you’re going to come back into the workplace, you need to accept having this type of app on your phone.

Wood: What are the privacy safeguards?

Sapin: The tracing is only happening within the building itself. The other thing is, if you and I are in the office together and we both have downloaded the app, all the app is seeing is the ad ID on your phone and the ad ID on my phone. It’s completely anonymized in that sense. If I [were] the employee that notified HR that I had COVID-19, it would associate my name, with the ad ID on my phone, and it would identify all the other phones that I came in contact with over the past 14 days or 45 days. Then, we would associate those ad IDs on those phones with the employees’ names. HR would then take that data and notify those folks. The minute that HR clicks out of that screen, the association of the name with a phone and with the ad ID in the proximity data is completely erased.

Wood: Are you worried about the accuracy of self-reporting, especially since testing isn’t that widely available?

Sapin: I mean, it’s not perfect. Right now it’s going to be dependent on people coming in, as they have now, and letting folks know [that] either they’ve gotten some testing with their doctors or whatever it may be. Like I said, this is not a prophylactic, in terms of keeping people out. The use case here is how can HR, when someone has notified them that they have come down with COVID-19, how can [HR] more quickly and more precisely identify those employees who came in contact with that individual? Until we get better testing and all this stuff, I think it’s going to continue to be an evolution with how accurate and how quickly we can identify people within the building who have COVID-19. Even the issue right now with some of the thermal recognition sensors as people walk into a building is, people could be completely asymptomatic when they come in, and then still be spreading the virus around. We just feel like there needs to be some mechanism in place to identify those folks that came in touch with someone who has, down the road, let them know that they contracted COVID-19.

Wood: You just announced the availability of this product. How is demand?

Sapin: Let’s put it this way, interest has been very high. It’s been an incredible response from our clients.

Wood: How sensitive is the Bluetooth technology? That’s been the other question about that capability, that you hear stories about people riding on trains through towns, and because Bluetooth has such a wide range, is there a possibility that you’ll be getting people from the sidewalk outside the building?

Sapin: This is the special sauce that we have with this solution. You hear some of the stories that said, “If I’m sitting in one room and somebody else is sitting in that room next door, our Bluetooth might be beaconing off each other.” What we do with looking at these ambient signals […] each space within the building has a unique signal fingerprint. It’s looking around and looking at all the Bluetooth and the WiFi routers. That adds another layer of specificity in terms of proximity. If you and I are standing in a room together, our phones are going to beacon off each other. Our two phones are also observing the same signals at the same time. When that scan runs through, it’ll say [something like], “David and Molly’s phones were seeing the exact same signal, so they must have been close to one another.” That gives us a higher level of accuracy with the proximity.

Wood: There’s a sense that this is technology that could be useful from a public health perspective, but relies on uptake. Do you think we’re going to find ourselves in a position where companies have incredibly valuable public health data as a result of their employees probably being mandated to use this app? Is there a mechanism for either sharing or not sharing that data?

Sapin: I don’t know whether this is going to solve this societal issue in terms of the uptake piece, but I think it can actually have a big impact. If you think about [it], thousands and thousands of employers implementing something like this, while it may not work at a societal level, if you can get a high level of adoption at a corporate level, think about the impact on the numbers of employees who you’re doing a better job of identifying who’s been in contact with someone with COVID-19. I think it can have a significant impact there. In terms of the data, really the only data that we’re collecting is that proximity data, and providing a tool back to management to be able to more precisely and quickly identify those folks that have come in contact with someone. The other data that companies will have — they might have had this anyhow, which is on our dashboard — they will know how many employees at any one time have COVID-19 and how many other employees have been potentially impacted by those employees. You get a dashboard view that’s anonymized at that level, [and] I don’t know how much that’s going to help from a broader health perspective. Like I said, the biggest value proposition is if you get thousands of companies using this type of approach, I think it’s going to have an impact on their communities because I think it’s going to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their work environment and within their workforce, and also have that impact outside the workforce in the surrounding communities.

PWC hopes its contact-tracing app reduces the spread of COVID-19 among colleagues and in surrounding communities. (Photo courtesy of PWC)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The Financial Times reported Wednesday that India had made it mandatory for government employees to download and use a contact-tracing app. The government released an app called Bridge to Health earlier this month and asked Indian citizens to download it. The FT said it had been downloaded about 75 million times as of this month. Most experts believe that for them to be effective, digital contact-tracing apps have to be downloaded by 50% to 70% of the population, which in India is more than 600 million people.

In case you’re wondering, it’s definitely legal for your employer to require you to use a tracing app. The legal research site Jurist says it’s definitely legal for states and probably legal for the federal government to require it as well, although it would take bipartisan cooperation. As the site puts it, such measures are “sub-optimal.” One of the barriers to digital contact tracing is trust, and in some polls Americans have said they’re far more likely to trust an app that isn’t from a company. In a Reuters poll put out Wednesday, more than half of respondents said they either don’t have a smartphone or wouldn’t use apps put out by Google and Apple for contact tracing.

Also watching

You know who’s not having a very tough time during this pandemic? Facebook. The social network reported earnings Wednesday and the upshot is it’s benefiting handsomely from a lot of people being in quarantine, swapping news and live streams and pictures of what it used to be like to go on spring break trips. User growth is up double digits on a daily and monthly basis. Despite a dip in advertising, Facebook said the dip has flattened and expects it to stay about the same level for the second quarter, too. 

Microsoft also beat estimates Wednesday and said the coronavirus “had minimal net impact on the total company revenue.” Today: Apple, Amazon and Twitter. So far, Big Tech at least is humming along just fine.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer