To facilitate a safe return to work at company sites now that lockdown conditions are easing, Siemens announced on Thursday that it’s rolling out its Comfy mobile phone app to hundreds of its offices and factories around the world.
More than 100,000 staff in 30 countries will get access to the app, which gives data on occupancy levels and updates on the local situation so employees can comply with physical distancing regulations.
It will eventually work in coordination with Siemens’ “smart office” technology to allow workers to see occupancy in real-time.
“The safe return of people to the workplace is a global challenge, and it’s vital that companies protect their employees to build trust and confidence,” said Roland Busch, deputy CEO and member of the managing board of Siemens AG, in a statement.
“Our Comfy app supports our new mobile working model, by enabling employees to better plan when they choose to work from the office.”
Siemens announced last week it would let its employees work remotely for two or three days a week in a “new normal” working arrangement.
Staff worried about CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus infections among fellow workers can also use a manual contact tracing feature on the app created under a partnership with U.S. software developer Salesforce.
The app can also block desks in an area if information is received about a person suspected of having the virus, said Siemens, which already sells the app to external customers.
The app will initially be available at half of Siemens’ 1,300 factories and offices. Contact tracing will be an opt-in solution to respect users’ privacy, Siemens said.
“In the UK the system is being trialled and is expected to be ready to be rolled out to employees in September,” a Siemens’ spokesperson told The Epoch Times.
Data Security and Testing
The CCP virus pandemic has changed working conditions in unprecedented ways, requiring new solutions. But apps and technology introduced to ensure staff health and safety also raise questions of data security and privacy.
For companies like Siemens, who have sites worldwide, they will need to comply with specific laws covering data privacy rights in all jurisdictions where the app is to be deployed, Max Winthrop, chairman of the Law Society’s employment law committee, told The Epoch Times.
Winthrop said there were, however, certain situations under current laws in England and Wales that could potentially “trump” those rights, including for employees in the current post-lockdown situation.
“There could be situations where a breach of data protection might be excused due to broader public health concerns,” he said.
“The question would be if you are an employer and you say, right, we need to check you and see whether you have ever been exposed to coronavirus.”
Though some employees, Winthrop said, such as pharmaceutical and construction workers, may have already agreed to random testing in their employment contracts, “There won’t be a clause in your contract that says you can be tested for coronavirus.”
“The question then would be, can the employer say to people ‘this is a reasonable request’ and if you don’t agree to the test then you could be subject to a disciplinary sanction,” Winthrop said.
He cited the recent virus-related problems experienced in care homes as a setting in which such a testing request could be reasonable and be viewed as an “appropriate instruction” for an employer to give employees.
Winthrop also said that he suspects that in the future there might be something inserted into more contracts of employment to facilitate testing compliance.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) already in existence in England and Wales before lockdown, and similar guidelines in Scotland, provides a good level of protection in terms of data security, he said.
In April the European Data Protection Board (EDPD) adopted “[Guidelines] on the Use of Location Data and Contact Tracing Tools in the Context of the Covid-19 Outbreak.”
It set out the specifics of how such tools are to be used including “to notify individuals of the fact that they have been in close proximity of someone who is eventually confirmed to be a carrier of the virus.”
The guidelines say that “the EDPB has already taken a position on the fact that the use of contact tracing applications should be voluntary and should not rely on tracing individual movements.”
Siemens’ new digital service uses a sensor system called Enlighted to enable real-time tracking of people in the building along with an app called Safe.
“Built upon Enlighted’s real-time location services capability, employees are provided badge tags they carry while in the workplace. Safe continuously records location, movement, and proximity of the badges relative to each other while in the building,” the Enlighted website states.
However, data can be anonymised so individual employees do not need to give personal information or be associated with particular badges, the website states.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, “administrators query the Safe application, identify other IDs this badge came in contact with and share the anonymous IDs. Employees carrying those badge IDs can self-identify their exposure,” Enlighted, a company owned by Siemens, said.
The Enlighted system is already installed in 320 million square feet of buildings globally.
“The Comfy app, which we are rolling out for our employees at Siemens is not a contact tracing App,” a Siemens spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email.
“We take data privacy very seriously. The applications available for employees will be opt-in, meaning employees will choose whether to use them or not. Siemens has a strong commitment to managing data responsibly.
“The Charter of Trust, which we have started, is a good example of Siemens working together with other global players on the topic of cybersecurity – a major element in the charter is the protection of data of individuals and businesses,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this report.