New AI-driven health tracking technologies are being used by organizations to curtail the spread of the coronavirus by monitoring and recording patrons’ and employees’ temperatures and locations to determine whether they may be a high-risk of spreading the disease. With many data-related privacy and ethical questions about this approach still unresolved, small businesses looking to reopen in the new normal will have to grapple with whether or not to deploy these technologies and, if they do, how they should go about it.
At a June 2020 virtual conference about the COVID-influenced economy, futurist Benjamin Pring of IT services consultancy Cognizant spoke about the inevitable rise of surveillance technology by governments and businesses. Much like the aftermath of 9/11, the new security systems implemented during COVID-19 will most likely be here to stay, he said.
One example of the technology he was talking about comes from French "3D semantic camera" company Outsight, who has developed autonomous laser technology that uses factors like bare faces (i.e. without masks), higher-than-average body temperature and proximity to other people to identify “high spread risk” individuals within large crowds. Companies, like real estate management or security firms, can use this technology to streamline safety enforcement in an effort to keep transmission rates low.
And as the Washington Post reported in April 2020, if you enter the City Farmers Market in Atlanta or one of the Wynn Resorts hotels in Las Vegas, you can expect to be discreetly informed if you register as feverish — and may even be asked to leave.
Even in public places that operate on a smaller scale, business owners and managers are deploying thermal “healthcams.” Organizations like pharmacies, banks and restaurants are using solutions like Vivotek, which checks the number of people entering and exiting a facility. The smart camera and analytics system monitors lines and points of entry with more frequent social interaction. Other businesses are using social distancing wristbands that ring when two people stand less than six feet apart. Fitted with Bluetooth, the band tracks the wearer’s physical connection points in case the establishment later needs to track an infection.
The biggest concern with this type of surveillance involves informed consent — the responsibility of the organization to make the appropriate efforts to communicate to those being tracked what data is being collected and how it is being processed. Some customers may be uncomfortable with automated systems routinely follow individuals through public places and record their data, and the bigger the crowd, the less likely it is that every customer will understand how they’re being monitored, and the implications of the surveillance.
To protect privacy, consider a system that does not use video capture and stores individual data anonymously, and ensure that you are clearly and effectively communicating the means and methods you are using to track, process, and act on data.
Leveraging AI-driven location and health tracking can give SBOs peace of mind during the stressful reopening period. If you deploy these technologies carefully and with forethought, your customers will be your allies.
A supermarket in Melbourne, Australia ignited a Twitter storm when it failed to alert customers to a surveillance system. According to the Daily Mail, Branwell Travers was scanning his items at a self-service checkout when he noticed a camera recording him. The store had no signage about the new program, nor were there alerts or messages on his kiosk’s touchscreen. Travers took his displeasure online, where other retailers were outed for similar practices.
Businesses that hide surveillance may lead customers to assume ulterior motives. After all, you don’t have to be a marketing expert to see how safety-based systems can be used to collect data about the products customers look at and the products they buy. It’s easy to repurpose data to serve up personalized promotions and recommendations inside and outside the store. But if your customers don’t know what you’re doing, they won’t be happy about it.
The solution here can be simple: Be as transparent as possible. Try to inform your customers, online and offline, if you are tracking their location and/or health data. Consider explaining why you are doing surveillance, what the data will be used for and how it will be securely stored.
Try not to assume that because you say something once, your customers are universally informed. Consider repeating your key messages frequently and invite people to share their feedback about the program. It’s the responsible thing to do.
Thermal scanners detect heat from a person’s skin, but obviously, they can’t read temperature from inside the body. This leaves their measurements with a wide margin of error. According to a report by the European Commission, these systems can yield false positives, classifying healthy people as ill. Business owners can protect themselves by using a secondary method, such as a forehead thermometer, to take a customer’s temperature before removing them from an establishment.
Traffic counting is also vulnerable to inaccuracies, especially when there are human employees involved. Businesses can ensure their data is correct and comprehensively reflects the real-time situation in a location by using a solution that guarantees a high degree of counting accuracy such as Traf-Sys and V-Count.
Prior to COVID-19, companies could not force employees to submit to temperature checks, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rolled back this prohibition. Although the law never applied to customers, it was in place for employees for a reason — to prevent bias against the disabled. By definition, using thermal sensors to define customers can be a form of customer profiling.
And, like other forms of profiling, looking at fever specifically may not even be fair. Just because a customer’s body temperature is above average doesn’t mean they have COVID-19. They may have a higher temperature reading from recently being in the sun or having just worked out.
Is removing a customer from your establishment because your thermal scanner registers 100.9 degrees the right thing to do? It’s not a given that the federal government will regulate this any time soon, so business owners must be guided by their own consciences.
Leveraging AI-driven location and health tracking can give business owners peace of mind during the stressful reopening period. If you deploy these technologies carefully and with forethought, your customers will be your allies.
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