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Are Devices to Monitor Workplace Social Distancing Really Required?

Workplaces are turning to devices to monitor social distancing, but does the tech respect privacy?



This article was originally published by TheConversation.

Maintaining social distancing is a challenge as workplaces reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. miodrag ignjatovic/E+ via Getty Images
As we emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, those of us who still have a workplace may not recognize it. Businesses, eager to limit liability for employees and customers, are considering a variety of emerging technologies for limiting pandemic spread. These technologies can be loosely divided into two types: one based on cellphone technologies and the other using wearable devices like electronic bracelets and watches. Both approaches focus on maintaining social distancing, nominally six feet between any two workers based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and supported by some modeling. Most workers will have little choice whether to participate in their employer’s risk mitigation. As a networking and security researcher, I believe that it is essential that both employees and employers understand the technologies in use, their effectiveness at reducing risk of infection and the risks they may pose to the privacy and well-being of all involved.

The technologies

Social distancing technologies are designed to warn workers when they get too close to each other, typically relying on communications that can travel only short distances. In this way, if your device can “hear” someone else’s device, you’re considered too close to the other person and potentially infected. Perhaps the most promising communication technology for social distancing is ultra-wideband, which enables precise distance measurements between devices. A more common medium is Bluetooth Low Energy, which is used for headphones and portable speakers, though it may produce less consistently accurate distance information depending on the environment. Finally, sound itself can be used to determine distance to other people, much like bats use echoes to identify obstacles in their flight paths, with the advantage that it respects wall and door boundaries just like the coronavirus. Modern cellphones typically can communicate through both Bluetooth Low Energy technologies and sound. Late model iPhones also support ultra-wideband communications. Contact tracing apps, which are used to alert people when they’ve been exposed to an infected person, generally use these media while loosely adhering to a common design. They include approaches focusing on privacy and security, or precise distance measurements using sound outside of the human hearing range. More recently, Apple and Google jumped into the fray with their own approach that also solves some of the technical challenges that appear to require the cooperation of the two tech giants. Wearables, which are more limited devices that a person can wear like a bracelet or a ring, can also be used for social distancing. Popular workplace wearables can be programmed to buzz or otherwise alert employees when they get within six feet of each other. These include Halo, Estimote and Covid Radius. Other devices monitor health indicators such as pulse, body temperature or movement.
A tugboat deckhand demonstrates a digital bracelet that flashes red when a coworker is too close to him. AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Will this help?

Workplace social distancing products are designed to monitor the six-foot separation guideline of the CDC. This is a crude measure that is complicated in practice. How long are people in contact? What kind of air patterns surrounded them? Were they wearing masks? Were they singing? Although some modeling suggests that even crude social distancing can help spread out infection rates over time to help with hospital load, digital contact tracing faces serious challenges of adoption – in order for an infectious contact to be recorded, both parties must be using the technology. This means, for example, that if 50% of people in a work area – including mail deliverers, IT support and plumbers – adopt the technology, then approximately 25% of the infectious contacts might be identified. If the workplace is already a hot spot for infection, say a meatpacking facility, then the technology only tells workers what they already know: There is widespread infection risk.

What about privacy?

Employers can already legally read employee emails, monitor calls and record video of employees. What additional risk does contact tracing present? The location data that is used by some contact tracing solutions can be intensely personal. It can identify, for example, with whom workers eat lunch or even what they purchased at the lunch counter. It can identify what fraction of the workday is spent by the water cooler, and even how often and for how long workers go to the bathroom. Without explicit safeguards, employees are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and maintaining their privacy. Fortunately, some of the solutions do attempt to safeguard privacy in a variety of ways.

Open tech, limited data

It is important that data shared with the employer – or any other third party – should be anonymous and not tied to personal information. Indeed, several of the cellphone-based solutions only share randomly generated data that is useful only for contact tracing apps that tell the cellphone’s owner about potential exposures. Furthermore, some of the wearables do not use a central repository, instead sharing data only among themselves and deleting it after the infection window, typically 14 days. Some of the technologies prevent employers from accessing employee contact history. In these approaches, only employees who have been near an infected individual are alerted, either through physical feedback like a vibrating buzz or through alerts on their smartphones. Employers are naturally anxious to get a broad picture of worker health, but the greater insight necessarily intrudes on privacy. I believe the ideal scenario is where the worker – and no one else – knows only that he has been exposed to the virus at some recent time, not when, where or by whom. It may be very difficult for employees to understand what kind of privacy a social distancing system provides without knowing how it operates. Many of the existing products on the market are open-source, meaning that anyone can view and analyze at least some of their code. Some also make all contact information publicly visible, albeit obfuscated, so that there is no mystery about what data is being collected and used. At the end of the day, social distancing technologies can help protect employees in a post-COVID world. However, absent well-crafted privacy law, both employees and employers must understand broadly how these technologies work, their limitations and their capabilities. [The Conversation’s science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]

Ari Trachtenberg works for Boston University. Some of the ideas mentioned in this article came out of discussions with colleagues (Mayank Varia, David Starobinski, Ran Canetti, Renato Mancuso, Rich West, Gerald Denis and Anand Devaiah) and students (Maha Ashour, Sean Brandenburg, Nadim El Helou, Manan Monga, Novak Boskov) as part of a project to develop a contact tracing app.

Some of his research is supported by a DARPA saeedline grant and National Science Foundation Grant No. 1563753; any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of DARPA or the National Science Foundation.

Novak Boskov is a doctoral student at Boston University. Some of his research is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Spread & Containment

War, peace and security: The pandemic’s impact on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to improve the lives of women and girls in postwar countries…



Nepalese girls rest for observation after receiving the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Attention to the pandemic’s impacts on women has largely focused on the Global North, ignoring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, which continue to deal with prolonged effects of war. While the Nepalese Civil War concluded in 2006 and the Sri Lankan Civil War concluded in 2009, internal conflicts continue.

As scholars of gender and war, our work focuses on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. And our recently published paper examines COVID-19’s impacts on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka, looking at policy responses and their repercussions on the women, peace and security agenda.

COVID-19 has disproportionately and negatively impacted women in part because most are the primary family caregivers and the pandemic has increased women’s caring duties.

This pattern is even more pronounced in war-affected countries where the compounding factors of war and the pandemic leave women generally more vulnerable. These nations exist at the margins of the international system and suffer from what the World Bank terms “fragility, conflict and violence.”

Women, labour and gender-based violence

Gendered labour precarity is not new to Nepal or Sri Lanka and the pandemic has only eroded women’s already poor economic prospects.

Prior to COVID-19, Tharshani (pseudonym), a Sri Lankan mother of three and head of her household, was able to make ends meet. But when the pandemic hit, lockdowns prevented Tharshani from selling the chickens she raises for market. She was forced to take loans from her neighbours and her family had to skip meals.

Some 1.7 million women in Sri Lanka work in the informal sector, where no state employment protections exist and not working means no wages. COVID-19 is exacerbating women’s struggles with poverty and forcing them to take on debilitating debts.

Although Sri Lankan men also face increased labour precarity, due to gender discrimination and sexism in the job market, women are forced into the informal sector — the jobs hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two women sit in chairs, wearing face masks
Sri Lankan women chat after getting inoculated against the coronavirus in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in August 2021. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

The pandemic has also led to women and girls facing increased gender-based violence.

In Nepal, between March 2020 and June 2021, there was an increase in cases of gender-based violence. Over 1,750 incidents were reported in the media, of which rape and sexual assault represented 82 per cent. Pandemic lockdowns also led to new vulnerabilities for women who sought out quarantine shelters — in Lamkichuha, Nepal, a woman was allegedly gang-raped at a quarantine facility.

Gender-based violence is more prevalent among women and girls of low caste in Nepal and the pandemic has made it worse. The Samata Foundation reported 90 cases of gender-based violence faced by women and girls of low caste within the first six months of the pandemic.

What’s next?

While COVID-19 recovery efforts are generally focused on preparing for future pandemics and economic recovery, the women, peace and security agenda can also address the needs of some of those most marginalized when it comes to COVID-19 recovery.

The women, peace and security agenda promotes women’s participation in peace and security matters with a focus on helping women facing violent conflict. By incorporating women’s perspectives, issues and concerns in the context of COVID-19 recovery, policies and activities can help address issues that disproportionately impact most women in war-affected countries.

These issues are: precarious gendered labor market, a surge in care work, the rising feminization of poverty and increased gender-based violence.

A girl in a face mask stares out a window
The women, peace and security agenda can help address the needs of some of those most marginalized. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Policies could include efforts to create living-wage jobs for women that come with state benefits, emergency funding for women heads of household (so they can avoid taking out predatory loans) and increasing the number of resources (like shelters and legal services) for women experiencing domestic gender-based violence.

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to achieve the agenda’s aims of improving the lives of women and girls in postwar countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Luna KC is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Research Network-Women Peace Security, McGill University. This project is funded by the Government of Canada Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) program.

Crystal Whetstone does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

After more than two years of missteps and backpedaling over Covid-19 guidance that had a profound…



CDC Announces Overhaul After Botching Pandemic

After more than two years of missteps and backpedaling over Covid-19 guidance that had a profound effect on Americans' lives, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced on Wednesday that the agency would undergo a complete overhaul - and will revamp everything from its operations to its culture after failing to meet expectations during the pandemic, Bloomberg reports.

Director Rochelle Walensky began telling CDC’s staff Wednesday that the changes are aimed at replacing the agency’s insular, academic culture with one that’s quicker to respond to emergencies. That will mean more rapidly turning research into health recommendations, working better with other parts of government and improving how the CDC communicates with the public. -Bloomberg

"For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations," said Director Rochelle Walensky. "I want us all to do better and it starts with CDC leading the way.  My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication and timeliness."

As Bloomberg further notes, The agency has been faulted for an inadequate testing and surveillance program, for not collecting important data on how the virus was spreading and how vaccines were performing, for being too under the influence of the White House during the Trump administration and for repeated challenges communicating to a politically divided and sometimes skeptical public."

A few examples:

Walensky made the announcement in a Wednesday morning video message to CDC staff, where she said that the US has 'significant work to do' in order to improve the country's public health defenses.

"Prior to this pandemic, our infrastructure within the agency and around the country was too frail to tackle what we confronted with Covid-19," she said. "To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes — from testing, to data, to communications."

The CDC overhaul comes on the heels of the agency admitting that "unvaccinated people now have the same guidance as vaccinated people" - and that those exposed to COVID-19 are no longer required to quarantine.

Tyler Durden Wed, 08/17/2022 - 12:22

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Why Is No One at Nike Working This Week?

And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?



And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?

You go into an office, pull at the door and find that it doesn't give and nobody's there. 

It may sound like the start of the common rushing-to-the-office-on-a-Saturday nightmare but, more and more, collective time off is being embraced by employees as part of a push for a better work culture.

While professional social media platform LinkedIn  (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report and dating app Bumble  (BMBL) - Get Bumble Inc. Report had already experimented with collective time off for workers, the corporate ripples truly began with Nike  (NKE) - Get Nike Inc. Report.

In August 2021, the activewear giant announced that it was giving the 11,000-plus employees at its Oregon headquarters the week off to "power down" and "destress" from stress brought on by the covid-19 pandemic.

"In a year (or two) unlike any other, taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane," Matt Marrazzos, Nike's senior manager of global marketing science, wrote to employees at the time.

Nike Is On Vacation Right Now

The experiment was, not exactly unexpectedly, very well-received — a year later, the company instituted its second annual "Well-Being Week." Both the corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and three Air Manufacturing design labs with over 1,500 employees are closed for a collective paid vacation from Aug. 15 to 19.

"We knew it would be impactful, but I was blown away by the feedback from our teammates [...]," Nike's Chief Human Resources Officer Monique Matheson wrote in a LinkedIn post.

"Because everyone was away at the same time, teammates said they could unplug – really unplug, without worrying about what was happening back at the office or getting anxiety about the emails piling up."


Of course, the time off only applies to corporate employees. To keep the stores running and online orders fulfilled but not exacerbate the differences between blue and white collar workers, Nike gave its retail and distribution employees a week's worth of paid days off that they can use as they see fit.

Nike has tied the change to its commitment to prioritize mental health. In the last year, it launched everything from a "marathon of mental health" to a podcast that discusses how exercise can be used to manage anxiety and depression.

Rippling Through the Corporate World?

But as corporations are often criticized for turning mental health into positive PR without actually doing much for employees, the collective week off was perhaps the most significant thing the company did for workers' mental health.

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The practice of set office closures has long been common practice in many European countries. In France, not only corporate offices but even restaurants and retail stores empty out over the month of August for what is culturally considered sacred vacation time. 

But as American work culture prioritizes individual choice and "keeping business going" above all else, the practice has been seen as radical by many corporate heads and particularly small businesses that may find it more difficult to have such a prolonged drop in business. 

But in many ways, the conversations mirror some companies' resistance to remote work despite the fact that one-fourth of white-collar jobs in the U.S. are expected to be fully remote by 2023

"This is the kind of perk that makes employees want to stay," industry analyst Shep Hyken wrote in a comment for RetailWire. "And knowing they can’t completely shut the entire company down, I like the way they are compensating the distribution and retail store employees."

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