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Wireless Technology Considerations for COVID-19 Contact Tracing

As states, counties, and cities across the country further loosen stay-at-home and mask orders, some business leaders are looking at ways to protect employees as they migrate back into the office. One popular yet controversial concept is to leverage wireless network technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS to track employees' whereabouts if a COVID-19 outbreak were to occur within a business. The idea is that tracking can help determine who may have been in contact with a confirmed case so they can be quickly informed, isolated, and tested.

While this may sound like a perfect solution for some, it comes with some drawbacks. Specifically, there is the fact that currently implemented wireless technologies weren't designed for contact tracing. Thus, there are some reliability and accuracy issues to contend with. Second is the fact that there are major privacy concerns to consider. Let's look at ways specific wireless technologies can be used for contact tracing purposes -- as well as some of the potential drawbacks businesses must consider before implementing contact tracing within their corporate network.

Bluetooth

Thanks to companies such as Apple and Google that have already integrating basic tracing capabilities and developer toolkits within their mobile device operating systems, Bluetooth is easily the most discussed technology for digital contact tracing. Tracing using Bluetooth works by capturing and storing Bluetooth signals that were collected by other Bluetooth devices broadcasting in the same general vicinity. This data is then uploaded to the cloud via an app that the device owner must download and install. The relatively short range of Bluetooth signals can provide a general approximation of who a potentially infected person encountered. Once a COVID-19 case is verified, the app could then look up what other devices that user came into contact with. Those people would then be sent an alert notifying them of the potential contact.

One technical drawback to Bluetooth contact tracing deals with distance accuracy. Because Bluetooth is a peer-to-peer technology, there is no way to use triangulation to provide more accurate results. Instead, signal strength measurements are used to approximate distance. However, signal strength readings are far from accurate. Thus, there is the potential for false-positive or negative contacts.

Wi-Fi

Because most businesses have installed wall-to-wall Wi-Fi within buildings, warehouses, plants, and campuses, it makes sense that Wi-Fi technologies would be high on the list from a contact tracing perspective. Enterprise-grade Wi-Fi also has the benefit of triangulating device locations, making accuracy a bit better than Bluetooth. It also technically does not require added apps on end-user devices. Instead, tracing maps can be built within the WLAN's centralized wireless controller. This makes participation and setup requirements far less problematic compared to Bluetooth.

GPS

Global positioning chips contained within most mobile devices are also being considered for contact tracing duties. Like Wi-Fi, the use of GPS would also not require the user to download an app. Additionally, the technology can be quite accurate – especially in outdoor situations.

Issues with privacy and participation

Despite likely good intentions, many are raising privacy concerns of digital contract tracing. This includes the use of anonymized data collection, the use of data to track people outside the bounds of health purposes, the inability to opt-in or out of tracing, and the logging of unnecessary contacts for trace matching to occur.

Additionally, for technologies that require opt-in or opt-out steps for employees, understand that contact tracing is only useful if the vast majority participate. This often includes requiring employees to download and install an app on their phone – or the requirement of a signed waiver to authorize the use of digital tracking. For businesses seeking to track all employees, it is going to take a great deal of effort to navigate through privacy and participation issues. It may even get to the point where the effort required to reach necessary participation levels may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Is digital contact tracing here to stay?

It's still much too early to determine whether contract tracing will be in demand from a long-term perspective. That said, for those seeking it, you can accomplish in-building or in-campus contract tracing with the wireless technologies available today. Just be sure you're fully aware of all the technical, participation and privacy issues you'll be up against.