Businesses Turn to Tech to Meet State Re-Opening Guidelines

By: Vanessa Grossl, CSG policy analyst

Many businesses are using new and evolving technologies to remain open or to re-open while meeting state public health guidelines. Temperature checks, new sensors and cameras are becoming the new normal. Businesses are installing fever-screening stations and various digital trackers designed to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Some employers are pushing for continuous monitoring during work shifts and extra security personnel to assist with these endeavors. But state officials must weigh both privacy concerns and potential COVID-19 mitigation benefits in deciding whether to implement these emerging technologies.

Distance Monitoring Devices

Several companies have designed a number of social distancing detectors, which are often artificial intelligence and camera-based, with ringing buzzers to alert security staff when two workers stand less than six feet apart. 

At a Ford-owned manufacturing plant in Michigan, workers have been asked to volunteer to test Bluetooth-enabled wristbands that vibrate when another person gets closer than the limit outlined in the state’s social distancing guidelines. The wristbands simultaneously keep track of who the wearer has come into contact with, potentially making any possible infections that arise within the 14-day incubation period easier to trace. 

Other businesses are implementing similar tracking tools that use workers’ cellphones to record who they get close to in office settings in hopes of curtailing the spread of the virus. Although these are meant to keep workers safe, and aren’t meant to be punitive, some health and labor experts worry that the pandemic has opened the door for unproven and intrusive surveillance techniques, many of which pose risks  such as eroding employer/employee trust by monitoring every interaction, length of breaks and pitting workers against one another as they compete to meet performance goals. 

Thermal Cameras

As state and federal leaders relax stay at home orders, fever checks using handheld thermometers are becoming commonplace. The spread of the virus has also brought attention to thermal-camera companies that had previously operated in niche markets, such as among military and security-related firms. The Oregon-based hardware firm, FLIR Systems, which makes most of the world’s thermal cameras, has seen its stock soar as demand for its products continues to increase. They sell everything from standard infrared thermometer guns to more complex social-distancing and heat-detection cameras, some of which are paired with controversial facial-recognition software.

Thermal cameras, which can gauge the temperatures of people in a crowd, were widely used in airports following the SARS outbreak in 2003. Walk-through temperature scanners are also becoming popular and several corporate giants are using multiple layers of temperature scans to more closely pinpoint potential risks. Some companies argue that thermal cameras, as opposed to the infrared thermometer checks, help streamline the experience. 

Others are weighing the merits of utilizing the facial recognition technologies that accompany some thermal cameras and are generally rethinking their guidelines around privacy and surveillance amid the global pandemic.  Reports indicate that public health experts are expecting various types of temperature scanning systems to become a widespread part of public life in the COVID-era, but warn that they could produce a false sense of security. In the months to come, they could be installed at airports, arenas, workplaces, grocery stores, schools, and other places that attract large crowds.

Surveillance and Privacy Concerns

A person’s temperature can go up for a number of reasons and, as has been widely reported, workers can spread the virus without having a fever. Most people with a fever don’t have the coronavirus, and assuming people are positive just because they are running a fever may cause problems, employee advocacy experts warn.  Some are concerned that these automated systems will oversee crowds of people who may not know or consent to being watched. With such surveillance gaining rapid acceptance due to the public health crisis, civil liberties advocates worry that the systems will become a normalized part of American life, lasting long after the outbreak ends as permanent surveillance tools in public and private realms.  

Federal Perspectives on Tech, Privacy, and Bias

These new procedures are already changing the way the U.S. government deals with long-standing practices intended to prevent bias.  Federal law has traditionally banned companies from forcing workers to take medical exams, including temperature checks, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently revised its policies to allow employers to take workers’ temperatures whenever they want.  The new policy goes so far as to permit a company to withdraw a job offer if a new hire  is diagnosed with COVID-19.

The new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines say telethermographic systems should be used alongside secondary screening methods, like clinical-grade thermometers, but the rules are nonbinding and not legally enforceable. An FDA official said in a statement to The Washington Post that the agency was “committed to maximum regulatory flexibility” during the pandemic stating that such systems can enhance safety while still protecting people’s privacy. “Solutions like this,” he added, “can play a huge role when we start to reopen America for business.” Since the scans aren’t regulated by federal law, businesses are left to decide their own policies surrounding how meticulously they search for and how they respond to abnormalities. Under normal circumstances, thermal scanners would require FDA testing and approval, but the agency has indicated, at least for now, that it doesn’t object to their widespread use.

State Partnerships, Decision-making & Legislative Opportunities

Labor experts have said that accelerating timelines for state reopening — and the lack of federal guidelines around proper scans — have led some companies to test out invasive experimental approaches in hopes they could more quickly help people return to work. With the federal government taking a more lenient approach toward regulation, state policymakers will have a heavy lift as they attempt to strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and preventing bias, while also ensuring that privacy-related legislation doesn’t hinder state efforts to flatten their curves and move toward economic recovery.