Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorLauren HeplerNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
People

Companies' next moral crisis: How to track employees without invading their privacy

Nearly one-quarter of CFOs surveyed by accounting giant PwC said contact tracing was part of their office reopening strategy.

A photo illustration shows logos for coronavirus tracking apps

Before reopening offices, many companies will need to decide how to do contact tracing with employees.

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

As tech companies grapple with how to reopen offices in the next phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, mobile contact-tracing systems seem like a perfect way for Silicon Valley to channel its data prowess to protect employees.

At least in theory.

In reality, the prospect of tracking workers' movements in case they contract the coronavirus — then potentially expose co-workers or customers — is raising difficult questions about effectiveness and privacy, according to industry leaders. It's another powder keg of risk and liability that businesses must navigate amid an unprecedented public health crisis as governments begin to lift shutdown measures.

Firms looking to invest in contact tracing will have to decide whether to create their own systems or mandate that employees opt into broader public contact-tracing efforts before they return to work. They'll need to decide how systems would integrate with their particular business routines, while balancing their responsibility to an individual employee's privacy against their responsibility to others.

Nearly one-quarter of chief financial officers surveyed by accounting giant PwC in late April said contact tracing was part of their office reopening strategy. But what form such efforts will take is an open question.

"Companies are going to find out that they're going to have to do contact tracing in one form or another. The question is going to be, what is the most efficient and private way of performing this task?" said Jay Cline, principal and U.S. privacy leader for PwC. "Employee privacy is the sleeping giant of the COVID-19 crisis. In order to meet the public health objectives, companies have to meet privacy objectives at the same time."

While Google and Apple are at the forefront of efforts to digitize contact tracing using Bluetooth technology, other groups are building their own systems, from researchers at MIT to central governments in South Korea, the U.K. and France. Opportunistic tech vendors are pitching localized offerings, like Nodle's app in Berkeley, and wearable device manufacturers are pitching in-office tracking capabilities. At the same time, companies are enlisting consultants and attorneys to evaluate whether it's worth investing in their own internal contact tracing systems.

The objective is to balance potential liability for spawning a COVID-19 cluster — as has happened at workplaces including meat-processing plants — with concerns about privacy and data security. Among the potential pitfalls are false positive reports, false negatives, over-collection of sensitive health data, and the loss of that data to hackers.

"It's still a huge question mark," said Matthew Damm, an employment law attorney at Fenwick & West. With few state-approved contact-tracing apps and no federal guidance on the issue, he's urging companies to pursue the "least invasive" methods possible.

The trouble with tracing

HP, which employs 55,000 people worldwide, has already reopened offices in China and elsewhere by emphasizing precautions for employees including wearing masks, getting tested for COVID-19, and submitting to touchless body-temperature checks, said Chief Human Resources Officer Tracy Keogh. Tech-enabled contact tracing, however, has so far taken a backseat.

"We're not doing any tracking of people," Keogh said. "Some of these tools are pretty invasive."

State and federal regulators, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have issued emergency orders to ease some standards for employee privacy, including allowing temperature checks, which raise an assortment of other issues.

The alternative to digital contact tracing — interviewing people who come down with the disease, then notifying others who may have been exposed — is time-tested but time-consuming. PwC's Cline said that early data suggests it takes companies 11 hours of human resources work per infected employee to do manual contact tracing.

At UCLA, public health professor David Eisenman said apps could be a faster and more cost-effective supplement to public health departments reduced by years of budget cuts. "We do not as a country continue to fund public health," Eisenman said. "It's not a resilient system, whereas an app is scalable."

But at the University of California San Francisco, in Silicon Valley's backyard, researchers are building public contact-tracing systems that rely on manpower rather on than apps. The tech that Google, Apple and others are building could be useful not on its own but "in addition" to manual equivalents, assistant professor of medicine Mike Reid said during a public health update last week. Officials are focused on hiring and training thousands of people to call, text and provide social services information to those who may have been exposed.

"This is not a technology that we're using in San Francisco," Reid said. "There's really going to be no replacement for a large army of public health professionals that do this work."

Companies could choose to trust that any employees exposed to the virus will be notified through such public systems. However, different systems have different standards for what constitutes a "contact." Reid said people are only notified of a potential exposure to COVID-19 if they spend 10 minutes in "close contact," or less than 6 feet away from an infected person.

The data game

Last week, when Apple and Google released the first version of its new contact-tracing API, Samy Kamkar was among the developers to download and test the nascent system, which relies on anonymized Bluetooth proximity data. The co-founder and chief security officer of Los Angeles building tech company OpenPath was impressed by the privacy safeguards: User IDs frequently change, data is stored on local devices rather than a centralized database, and geolocation data is not collected.

But if tech workers opt into broader public contact-tracing systems, companies could find themselves at the mercy of self-reported data. "My biggest question right now is what prevents me from pretending I am infected if I'm not?" Kamkar said.

More challenges could arise if people are asked to submit to more than one contact-tracing app — perhaps one at work and one or more outside of it. More splintering, Samkar said, would mean more uncertainty. "I don't think people will want to use competing systems," he said, "because you're losing a ton of data, a ton of information."


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


At PwC, Cline and his team are advising companies wading into contact tracing to think carefully about how long data will be retained, who has access to information and how systems are encrypted. He noted that contact tracing is also closely related to the ability to quickly test for COVID-19, or eventually, antibodies from the virus.

"Companies can sit out contact tracing perhaps until more tests are widely available," Cline said. "That's one of the key components for app-based contact tracing to work the best — for a whole workforce to have been tested, or have tests readily available."

At Fenwick & West, Damm said contact tracing is just one of many ways COVID-19 has upended business as usual. "The idea of an employer taking an employee's temperature would have sounded absurd three months ago," he said. "It's certainly not a world that we're used to living in."

Does Elon Musk make Tesla tech?

Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?

You know what's not tech and is a car company? Volkswagen.

Image: Tesla/Protocol

From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.

The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?

Keep Reading Show less
Becca Evans
Becca Evans is a copy editor and producer at Protocol. Previously she edited Carrie Ann Conversations, a wellness and lifestyle publication founded by Carrie Ann Inaba. She's also written for STYLECASTER. Becca lives in Los Angeles.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

Keep Reading Show less
J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories