In Rochester, Michigan, Oakland University is preparing to hand out to students wearable devices that log skin temperature once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — in the hopes of pinpointing early signs of the coronavirus.
In Plano, Texas, employees at the headquarters of Rent-A-Center recently started wearing proximity detectors that log their close contacts with one another and can be used to alert them to possible virus exposure.
And in Knoxville, Tennessee, students on the University of Tennessee football team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games — allowing the team’s medical director to trace which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.
The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge in the battle to hinder the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories and nursing homes have already deployed them. Resorts are rushing to adopt them. A few schools are preparing to try them. And the conference industry is eyeing them as a potential tool to help reopen convention centers.
“Everyone is in the early stages of this,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at the International Data Corp., a market research firm. “If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Companies and industry analysts say the wearable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have adopted virus screening tools like symptom-checking apps and temperature-scanning cameras. But they are not designed to catch the estimated 40% of people with COVID-19 infections who may never develop symptoms like fevers.
Some offices have also adopted smartphone virus-tracing apps that detect users’ proximity. But the new wearable trackers serve a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers cannot bring their phones, or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.
This spring, when coronavirus infections began to spike, many professional football and basketball teams in the United States were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a company in Munich whose wearable sensors track data like an athlete’s speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices for the pandemic, introducing SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light if they get within 6 feet. The NFL began requiring players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers in September.
The data has helped trace the contacts of about 140 NFL players and personnel who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the NFL Players Association. The system is particularly helpful in ruling out people who spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.
College football teams in the Southeastern Conference also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the head team physician at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when the athletes spent more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sideline.
“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive,” Klenck said.
Civil rights and privacy experts warn that the spread of such wearable continuous-monitoring devices could lead to new forms of surveillance that outlast the pandemic — ushering into the real world the same kind of extensive tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have instituted online. They also caution that some wearable sensors could enable employers, colleges or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people’s locations or social networks, chilling their ability to meet and speak freely. And they say these data-mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, like immigrants living in the country illegally or political activists.
“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit in Manhattan. “Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.”
Executives at Kinexon and other companies that market the wearable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data-mining risks and had taken steps to mitigate them.
Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity detection sensors, use Bluetooth technology to detect and log people wearing the trackers who come into close contact with one another for more than 10 or 15 minutes. But the system does not continuously monitor users’ locations, said Ron Rock, chief executive of Microshare. And it uses ID codes, not employees’ real names, to log close contacts.
Rock added that the system was designed for human resources managers or security officials at client companies to use to identify and alert employees who spent time near an infected person, not to map workers’ social connections.
GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently began working with Microshare to develop a virus-tracing system for its sites that make over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of digital supply chain technology for Asia Pacific at the company’s consumer health care division, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers who would wear the proximity detection sensors.
As a result, he said, the system silos the data it collects. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. And it separately records the ID numbers of workers who spent time in certain locations — like a packaging station in a warehouse — enabling the company to hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.
GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a site in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health plants in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also allowed the company to see where workers seem to be spending an unusual amount of time close together, like a security desk, and modify procedures to improve social distancing, Lim said.
“It was really designed to be a reactive type of solution” to trace workers with possible virus exposure, he said. “But it has actually become a really powerful tool to proactively manage and protect our employee safety.”
Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and companies preparing to making the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin-size sensor attached to the skin 24/7 that uses algorithms to try to detect possible signs of COVID-19.
Whether such continuous surveillance of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial is not yet known. Researchers are only in the early phases of studying whether wearable technology could help flag signs of the disease.
David Stone, vice president for research at Oakland University, said school officials had carefully vetted the BioButton and concluded it was a low-risk device that, added to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, might help hinder the spread of the virus. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data like their temperature readings.
“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to wait until this is an FDA-approved diagnostic,” Stone said. But, he added, “nothing about this pandemic has been in an ideal world.”
Dr. James Mault, chief executive of BioIntelliSense, the startup behind the BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask to have their personal details stripped from the company’s records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining its system’s effectiveness for COVID-19.
Oakland had initially planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff members signed a petition objecting to the policy. The tracker will now be optional for students.
“A lot of colleges are doing masks and social distancing,” said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, “but this seemed like one step too far.”