Home >News >India >As firms begin to reopen, staff comes under greater surveillance

Employees of private firms who want to step out of their homes and resume work from offices will likely have to contend with many more social distancing technologies than the government’s mandated Aarogya Setu.

The demand for tools that can monitor employees within workspaces has gone up with the country in the third phase of the covid-19 lockdown, with more curbs being eased to allow businesses to resume with safeguards.

Homegrown artificial intelligence (AI) company Staqu, said 15 businesses have either completed their contracts or are doing proof of concepts for their technologies. The company has modified its existing video analytics software, Jarvis, aimed at detecting whether people are wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and monitoring employees’ body temperatures.

A leading telecom operator wants to replace 650 fingerprint-based attendance systems with facial recognition systems across India. A large steel producing company is considering a similar move. Security and surveillance company Secureye said it saw an almost 25% hike in the number of enquiries about facial recognition systems in March.

Staqu’s efforts began in March, too, after the prison department in Uttar Pradesh asked the company to develop software that could help jail authorities enforce best practices during the pandemic. The company started deploying the software in the state’s prisons by 17 March, including technology to help detect crowds and if people are wearing masks.

“If you talk about factories and warehouses, where crowds are bigger, compliance is near impossible manually," said Atul Rai, co-founder and chief executive officer of Staqu.

For firms, Staqu’s software employs thermal cameras and closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras to monitor body temperatures of employees, whether they are wearing masks and if social distancing is maintained. The software can detect if people are standing within a metre of each other, or if more than five people are gathered, and alert the office administration, said Rai. Most of this can be done through CCTV, but special thermal cameras are required to monitor body temperatures.

There is an increase in demand for such software not only in India but also globally, though it is not yet perfect. Ben Waber, a 14-year veteran in the workplace analytics industry, said he is having conversations with clients about such tools almost every day. Waber is the co-founder and president of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company that came out of his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s mostly new," said Waber. The use of tech to do contact tracing in offices and find out whom to test isn’t accurate, he said and warned against the use of such tools as a replacement for existing methods of contact tracing.

“There’s a lot of interest in it. My only concern is that doing this is very challenging, technologically. Could it be used to test which teams you should test? Absolutely, but only if done accurately," he said.

Conditions such as altitude and how much metal there is in the workplace can “dramatically" change data, according to Waber. “If you trained a model in a city with higher elevation and use that algorithm in a city with lower elevation, you’ll think that people are much farther away than they actually are. I’m really concerned I’ve seen a couple of firms rush things out quickly," he said.

A lot of this can be done using existing technologies such as CCTV, light sensors, next generation ID cards, so firms will not need to install new hardware. “It’s all about the analysis of data coming from the system," Waber said.

“There’s very few companies that have been analysing this kind of data for understanding specific interactions. Even in academia, we did a lot of work, but as we started to get to a much larger scale commercially, it became really unfeasible, as the accuracy levels are quite low," he said.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said it is important for governments to “set specific guardrails" around what employers can and cannot do to monitor employees.

“To fully solve the public health crisis, it will be necessary to conduct actual contact tracing. However, people will resist this if the information can be misused or repurposed for other users," she said.

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