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Wi-Fi vendors pitch people tracking for COVID-19 safety

Wi-Fi vendors Aruba and Juniper Networks work with partners to offer in-office people tracking to defend against a COVID-19 outbreak. Cisco focuses on managing gatherings in physical spaces.

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Leading Wi-Fi vendors have tailored their products to accommodate companies that want to use their wireless networks to lower the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak in their buildings.

Aruba and Juniper Networks have positioned their wireless systems as a means for collecting data that companies could use for contact tracing after an employee is infected with the virus. On the other hand, Cisco is focusing on companies that want to enforce physical distancing requirements in buildings to reduce the chances of the infection spreading.

Juniper said companies could use its Mist Wi-Fi access points to track employees outfitted with badges that emit a continuous Bluetooth signal. Mist's cloud-based analytics engine would let organizations identify people with whom an infected person had been in close contact. It would also show the places the worker visited in a building, and how long he was there.

Jeff Aaron, vice president of marketing at Mist, said the Juniper cloud would not store data to identify employees. Instead, a company would use a separate product to redirect that information to an on-premises database.

Juniper is working with a couple dozen customers that want to use wearable tags for in-office tracking, Aaron said. Juniper offers the devices through partners HID Global and Kontakt.io.

Products coming soon from Wi-Fi vendors

Aruba currently provides third-party developers with software development kits that they can use to integrate Aruba's Bluetooth-supported tracking features into products. However, the company is "on the cusp" of delivering technology that would complement software for in-office contact tracing, said Alan Ni, a director within Aruba's digital workplace unit. Companies developing those products include Aruba partner CX App.

Most customers asking for Wi-Fi-enabled contact tracing are colleges and companies with large offices, Ni said. COVID-19 has forced organizations to consider gathering location data on employees that would have been unthinkable before the pandemic.

In the past, [people tracking] was officially a no-fly zone.
Alan NiDirector, Aruba's digital workplace unit

"In the past, this was officially a no-fly zone," Ni said. "We didn't go there."

Robert Mesirow, a partner in PwC's IoT practice, said organizations still shouldn't go there. He said tracking every employee's movements is unnecessary. In April, PwC introduced an alternative called Check-In.

The mobile app collects only data that tells employers how long and how often employees were with an infected person, and how close they were to the virus carrier. Gathering more data could threaten employees' sense of privacy and make it less likely they would reveal being infected to employers.

"You want to try to get as close to 100% [participation] as you possibly can, and to do that, you've got to have a trusted system," Mesirow said. "And to have a trusted system, you probably shouldn't be tracking."

Meanwhile, Cisco plans to introduce on Monday features that let companies use its DNA Spaces platform to maintain safety in physical spaces. DNA Spaces comprises analytics, toolkits and an API for third-party software integration. The platform uses a Wi-Fi network to gather and analyze data on people's movements within a store or a public venue, such as a museum or an airport.

The DNA Spaces upgrade would help organizations track the number of people in closed areas. It would also send notifications when an area exceeds its safe capacity, Cisco said in an email. Customers will also get a historical view of space use for future planning. Cisco declined to provide more details until it launches the product.

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