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TECH LAB

As companies reopen, technology will stand guard against COVID-19

Smartphone apps can help companies monitor employees for signs of COVID-19.
Smartphone apps can help companies monitor employees for signs of COVID-19.RXR

As the COVID-19 lockdown wanes, and companies throughout the United States reopen for business, workers can expect to be watched more closely than ever before — and not by their human bosses.

From smartphone apps that administer health checks before workers even leave the house to cameras and Bluetooth radio beacons that track people’s movements throughout the workday, companies are deploying monitoring technologies that could slow the further spread of the coronavirus.

Those include thermal monitors that can detect the body temperature of a person in a room or office lobby and a variety of other anti-COVID systems.

The New York real estate company RXR Realty is installing remote temperature screening systems in the lobbies of its buildings and cameras that will use artificial intelligence to note how many people are wearing face masks. In addition, elevators are being converted to touchless operation, activated by a smartphone app. Workers will have staggered arrival and departure times, to avoid crowded lobbies.

Data collected from the various sensors will be used to generate a “health index” estimating how risky it is to enter the building at any time. For instance, if many people enter without masks, the index will indicate a higher risk of infection.

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RXR Realty’s chief executive, Scott Rechler, said the index will be displayed on a smartphone app that will be provided to everyone who works in the building. “If someone is susceptible or has someone in their house that may be sick or feel sick, if the building’s health quality isn’t strong, then they should stay home,” Rechler said.

Rowley-based Shooter Detection Systems (SDS), known for security systems that pinpoint the location of gunfire, has formed an alliance with California-based X.Labs to distribute Feevr, a cellphone-size body heat detection system. SDS’s chief executive, Christian Connors, said the system can calculate a person’s temperature in about a second and is accurate to within six-tenths of a degree. People with elevated temperatures can be barred from entering the building.

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A spokesman for the Providence-based construction company Gilbane Inc. said it has begun using a Feevr system at the site of a high school being built in Dighton. Construction workers undergo a temperature scan each day; they also have to sign documents attesting that they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms. The Gilbane spokesman said the company plans to use Feevr tests at other upcoming construction projects.

X.Labs also offers a system called Feevr PreCheck, which lets employees take a temperature reading at home. Employers would give each worker a digital thermometer that can be connected to a smartphone and would take their temperatures every day. The data would be fed into a smartphone app and relayed to the company. Workers with elevated temperatures would be advised to stay home.

Everbridge, a Burlington company that manages communications about critical events like earthquakes and terrorist attacks, offers a service that lets a reopening company instantly blast out a recall message to all of its employees. Some of the messages will now include a COVID-19 self-evaluation: Workers will be asked if they have symptoms or if they’ve already had the disease and recovered. They can tap the answers into a smartphone, and their employer can use the results to decide who comes into work and who stays at home.

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Everbridge chief technology officer Imad Mouline said the system is already in use in several local hospitals and at an oil and gas company, none of which would he identify.

“This is going to become incredibly common,” Mouline said.

Everbridge is also working on digital social distancing tools. It has technology that can track the number of workers in a building by monitoring traffic on the company’s internal Wi-Fi network. The system warns managers if building occupancy exceeds social distancing guidelines.

Everbridge plans to offer an app that will use the Bluetooth radio beacons on employees’ smartphones to measure whether they are keeping at least 6 feet away from each other. The apps records any encounter under the social distancing guidelines, and if someone comes down with COVID-19, employers can use the Bluetooth data to find other employees who were close enough to that person to be at risk of infection. They will be contacted and urged to self-isolate.

The Boston data-security company Rapid7 is testing a different kind of social distancing technology in its Austin, Texas, office. It has installed an intelligent-camera system made by VergeSense, a San Francisco startup that detects the relative positions of people and can alert managers if workers are too close to one another.

Critics argue that some of these new technologies could pose serious risks to privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union said that thermal imaging cameras could be upgraded to detect heart rate and respiration, as well, enabling constant remote monitoring of sensitive medical data.

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“This crisis threatens to normalize such physiological surveillance,” the ACLU warned.

In a report, the ACLU focused on a more basic question: Does remote temperature screening work? The organization said the sensors are frequently inaccurate and noted that people infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and not run a high temperature. As a result, such systems could fail to prevent the spread of the disease while giving users a false sense of security.

“It may make people feel safe," said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, "but that can actually have negative consequences if it doesn’t work.”

Still, a recent ruling by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gives employers considerable latitude in tracking workers, said Sloane Ackerman, a labor and employment litigator at O’Melveny & Myers in New York.

“Because of the way the virus spreads, employers are allowed to measure employee temperatures," Ackerman said. Doing so through smartphone apps, questionnaires, and remote cameras, rather than through personal contact, can reduce the risk of spreading an infection, she added.

In addition, many state governments are requiring temperature tests for at least some employees, such as food service and health care workers, before they’re allowed to work.

Yet federal lawmakers are worried about the possible abuse of data collected by businesses. In late April, a quartet of Republican senators filed legislation to set strict privacy and data security standards governing any COVID-19 health data collected by private businesses.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.