The morning before professional golfer Nick Watney tested positive for the coronavirus, he was alerted by his WHOOP fitness tracker that his respiratory rate was elevated. “I woke up feeling okay and I checked the [WHOOP] data and my respiratory rate had gone up,” he told Will Ahmed on the WHOOP podcast in June. “I’m usually in the low 14s, [and it had gone up] to the low 18s,” Watney said. Prior to that morning, his respiratory rate had been very consistent. “It barely moves,” Watney told Ahmed. “And all of a sudden, you’re above 18 [breaths per minute].”
Watney quickly contacted PGA Tour officials, who tested him for COVID-19 despite his being asymptomatic. Naturally, this episode gained national attention: Headlines were rampant suggesting that, thanks in large part to indications from WHOOP’s wearable fitness tracker, Watney was alerted that something was off before showing any major signs, thus preventing him from potentially spreading the virus. Already a staple, the fitness tracker quickly gained momentum as a potential salve for employers trying to get their employees back in the office.
Just a few days prior to Watney’s positive test, Fierce Healthcare reported, “Device maker Fitbit is the latest technology company to jump into the back-to-work business.” “The tool, called Ready for Work, helps employees determine whether they have signs of COVID-19 before returning to work using key health metrics from Fitbit devices and self-reported symptoms,” the report continues. In addition, Amy McDonough, general manager and senior vice president for Fitbit Health Solutions, told Fierce Healthcare, “As workplaces start to reopen and with our long-standing relationship with employers, we felt we have a big opportunity to help their employees return to work safely and confidently.”
John, 31, is one such newly hired employee at a tech company whose employers have mandated that he wear a WHOOP bracelet. “I asked about COVID during my interview process,” he tells me. “I wanted to know what processes they had in place for COVID since we’re currently working in the office.” He says that they presented the WHOOP protocol very matter of factly. “Yeah, we wear these bands called WHOOP Bands, and it measures your respiratory rate and all this other shit,” he recalls his hiring manager telling him. “At first, I was just kind of like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ I didn’t really put two and two together until they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be tracked.’”
And it’s not just at work.“The annoying part is you have to wear it to sleep,” John explains. That, he says, was explained as the most “crucial part.” “They want to know about my respiratory rate in the morning,” John continues. “On the first day, I literally got an email about the protocols and had to basically acknowledge that I’ve read the email saying that, I understand that there could be grounds for termination if I don’t follow the rules.”
To be clear, currently, there’s only been one completed internal study by WHOOP suggesting that the bracelet “has developed an algorithm capable of identifying 80 percent of symptomatic COVID-19 cases simply from examining changes in respiratory rate,” as well as being able to identify 20 percent of asymptomatic cases. Which is to say, the jury is still very much out on how accurately the bracelet can identify people who have contracted the virus.
Nonetheless, in this COVID era — particularly as employers look at ways to open their offices back up — even one study is enough to influence the way companies think about tracking and monitoring the health of their employees. But the concept is hardly a new one. In fact, the precedent goes all the way back to an attempt by Ford Motor Company, who in 1913, according to a report in The Conversation, “set up a sociology department to monitor workers’ — and their families’ — compliance with its standards.” “Investigators would make unannounced calls upon employees and their neighbors to gather information on living conditions and lifestyles,” per the same report. “Those that were deemed insufficiently healthy or morally right were immediately disqualified from the $5 wage level.”
In recent times, per the same report in The Conversation, at least 24,500 BP America employees in 2015 were using Fitbits to encourage their employees to become more active. In May, Slate reported, “Amazon and Walmart use infrared cameras to conduct temperature checks for their warehouse workers, and hospitals like Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic are using apps to track staff’s health conditions and possible virus exposures.”
In addition, they outlined the wearable technology employers are using to track the location, movement and proximity of their workers to other workers. “Companies like CenTrak and SwipeSense supply RFID-enabled lanyards that record which rooms workers enter or exit, and whether they washed their hands or used hand sanitizer,” reports Natalie Chyi for Slate. “Sewio has released a ‘real-time location system’ that involves a comprehensive suite of sensors to install in the workplace, and portable signal transmitters for ‘asset tracking,’ ‘fleet tracking’ and ‘people tracking’ as well as accompanying software to monitor all the moving parts.”
It can be easy, especially during these increasingly frustrating times, to characterize these bracelets as a necessary evil if we’re to get back to some sense of normal. But that would be a mistake, not least because these “fitness trackers” pose major privacy concerns. “A 2018 survey by Gartner found that 22 percent of organizations worldwide in various industries are using employee-movement data, 17 percent are monitoring work-computer-usage data and 16 percent are using Microsoft Outlook- or calendar-usage data,” reports CNBC. In the same Slate report, Chyi cites research from Data & Society that found that data collected by monitoring technologies “has been used to inform automated assessments about workers’ behaviors, qualities or fitness for employment, increasing the potential for workplace discrimination.”
Not to mention that these technologies could lead to employers monitoring after-hours work activities as a way to control their employees.
In that regard, John tells me that although he’s registered the bracelet with his personal email address, “he assumes” that they’re keeping tabs on his respiratory rate. “Why else would they want me to wear this bracelet?” he says. There is also, he tells me, a company dashboard that pits employees against one another to assess “who’s the healthiest in the office.”
Making matters worse is that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy applies only to government actors. “Thus, there is no inherent right to privacy in the private employer workplace,” writes Richard Reice, a partner in M&R’s New York office and chair of the firm’s Employment Practice Group, for Bloomberg Law. Furthermore, he notes that the only potential violation with employer-required wearable tech is via the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The personal data collected may allow an employer to perceive or detect a disability,” he writes. But even that, he concedes, isn’t necessarily a barrier.
All of this also comes at a time when the U.S. is looking at the Chinese model of “public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection as a reason for its competitive edge,” writes Naomi Klein in her report on the post-COVID surveillance state for The Intercept. “The presentation touts China’s ‘explicit government support and involvement, e.g. facial recognition deployment,’” writes Klein. “It argues that ‘surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al’ and further, that ‘mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning.’”
John is well aware of the many privacy issues that come with his new company-mandated WHOOP bracelet. But before getting this job, John — like 30 million other Americans — was unemployed due to the pandemic, which is why, despite his hesitancy toward his new fitness tracker, he “doesn’t want to make a huge deal” about it. Besides, it’s a feature of the current COVID-era that more and more companies are likely to exploit in pursuit of a high-tech dystopia.