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Without A Trace: For Tenants And Employees, Contact Tracing May Be A Tough Sell


According to the World Health Organization, contact tracing — along with testing — should be the “backbone of the response” in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees

In the past two months, states have deployed thousands of human contact tracers — a role that involves “detective work, profound humility, tact” and “cold-calling people who may be irritated to hear from you,” according to a STAT News feature about Yale School of Public Health Students in baptism-by-fire training scenarios. Of course, there’s also an app for that. There seems to be a new one by the minute.

Real estate is in a position to play a central part in the rollout of contact tracing technology: The proptech solutions that many owners have integrated into buildings have the ability to track and trace where building users go and with whom they interact.

But this ability is being played out against a background of distrust in how effective the systems are and how the data will be used: even if it can help save lives, people do not like the idea of being tracked and traced.

Some buildings are in the process of launching building-integrated contact tracing tech in an effort toward keeping their tenants safe. Real estate investment firm Monday Properties in the D.C. metropolitan area just partnered with managed security services provider Kastle Systems to roll out integrated, building-wide pandemic safety technology solution KastleSafeSpaces, which enables office buildings to offer touchless access control, facilitate employee symptom screening and manage contact tracing at its Arlington office tower, 1812 North Moore Street, home to Nestle's U.S. headquarters. 

On the job site, Brasfield & Gorrie Vice President of Safety and Field Operations Support Troy Ogden in Birmingham, Alabama, told Construction Dive that the firm’s COVID-19 response team outlined a plan including “more intense cleaning, on-site hand-washing stations, changes in food vendor protocols, breathable face coverings and contact tracing of infected personnel."

Experts anticipate that companies may require employees to download Apple and Google’s contact tracer prior to returning to the office, which theoretically decentralizes and anonymizes the data being collected.   

Pivoting Proptech

If there is wide adoption despite the concerns, real estate companies with apps that already have building tenants as users may be in an opportune position: Some are leveraging the users and data they already have to meet the needs of companies that want or feel compelled to launch a digital contact tracing plan.  

Proptech company Openpath President and founder James Segil recently told Bisnow: "We're actually pivoting a little to be better-positioned for this market. We're highlighting the hands-free access, the wellness verification, occupancy management, contact tracing, and you can connect thermal cameras and use this for touchless elevators."

Sewio, a manufacturer of real-time location systems for indoor tracking for companies in the intralogistics, retail, sport, entertainment and livestock industries, has released an RTLS for the workplace which requires the installation of a number of sensors and portable signal transmitters for “asset tracking,” “fleet tracking” and “people tracking.”

In April, coworking space Knotel proposed leveraging the location tracking services built into its coworking space members’ app to facilitate employee contact tracing.

“It’s crossing a rubicon in terms of companies and personal privacy, but if your colleagues were on vacation in some place and nobody knows about it and now they’re in the office, suddenly that became a really big thing,” Knotel founder Amol Sarva told The Real Deal.

Smart buildings collecting massive amounts of data from tenants, residents or visitors is a practice that has been ramping up over the past few years. The Real Deal reported in 2018 that Hudson Yards collects so much data from residents, workers and tourists — from handprints to browser histories — it considers itself a “quantified community.”

“We can do … what we want with our data,” President of Hudson Yards Jay Cross said. Now, such buildings might be in a good position to launch full-scale contact tracing with the tech they already have in place.


Multifamily Smart Buildings

Most of the discussion revolves around workplaces and employers, but it is also relevant for multifamily owners of smart buildings, who need to consider issues of data privacy as well.

For example, in JCS Realty’s 130-unit Stanwix in Bushwick, Brooklyn, tenants can control their lighting, blinds and door locks — including seeing who locks and unlocks the doors — via wall panel or mobile app, all integrated with Amazon Alexa provided courtesy of the landlord.

“When renters move into a smart apartment, they’re connecting a smart home hub (owned or rented by the building) with multiple devices (some of which they own and some of which the building owns)," Scé Pike , founder and CEO of multifamily technology company IOTAS, wrote on Forbes. “Smart home systems must now consider how that tracking could intersect with the way residents pair Google Home and Google Nest with their smart home devices. A clear understanding of data ownership is imperative … When it comes to the data they input, and the data from all the devices they connect, who owns all that? This is a complicated issue with no easy answers.”

Leave No Trace

In early April, the ACLU released a statement on the perils of contact tracing technology: "As always, there is a danger that simplistic understandings of how technology works will lead to investments that do little good, or are actually counterproductive, and that invade privacy without producing commensurate benefits."

In a June 2 WorldatWork survey of 601 companies of varying size and industry, 75% of respondents said they plan to use contact tracing or to “monitor employee behavior.” Nearly 30% will ask employees to report their colleagues for violations.

Another June survey of more than 17,000 professionals by workplace communications company Fishbowl found 75% of professionals are against the implementation of workplace contact tracing technology and would not allow their employers to trace their activity. The most optimistic industry about contact tracing proved to be human resources, doubling the most skeptical industry — technology with a 40% rate of willingness to allow contact tracing while at work.  

According to the Brookings Institute, in order for contact tracing tools and technology to be effective, at least 60% of the population needs to opt in and use them. A May study determined the tech would face “enormous obstacles.”

And 70% of Americans are “deeply skeptical” about the technology.

“Skepticism toward digital contact tracing was not equal across racial groups, a disparity that if such apps are rolled out in the United States could result in further inequities in health outcomes among marginalized communities,” the Brookings study stated.

Already disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, black Americans expressed greater skepticism about digital contact tracing. Fewer than 20% of black survey participants supported government rollout of contact tracing apps compared to 36% of white participants, and they expressed greater concern about their personal data.  

“It’s all very well-intentioned, but there is a huge risk here that there could be some really pernicious discrimination, especially when you think about how this virus is disproportionately affecting African Americans, Hispanics, older Americans, and other marginalized communities,” David Brody of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that endorsed the Democrats’ new Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, told Consumer Reports.

On the flip side, others worry that it is the recipient of the data, not the one from which it is being requested, that will be harmed by the false security of self-reported data.

"We have serious doubts that voluntary, anonymous contact tracing through smartphone apps — as Apple, Google and faculty at a number of academic institutions all propose — can free Americans of the terrible choice between staying home or risking exposure," technologist Ashkan Soltani, University of Washington biology professor Carl Bergstrom and University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo wrote in an op-ed for the Brookings Institute.

"We worry that contact tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so."