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The hot new COVID tech is wearable and constantly tracks you

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By Natasha Singer, The New York Times Co.

Rochester, Michi­gan, Oak­land Uni­ver­si­ty is prepar­ing to hand out wear­able devices to stu­dents that log skin tem­per­a­ture once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — the hopes of pin­point­ing ear­ly signs of the .

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 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 0 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 A. 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.”

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