The app is “an important piece of technology that helps people feel safe coming back to the office,” said Myrna Coronado-Brookover, senior vice president of asset services at Transwestern, a commercial real estate company, who helped oversee the introduction of the app in the building.
Building apps also offer the ability to monitor the use of conference rooms, cafeterias and parking lots in an effort to improve operations. This data collection is part of the larger move toward “proptech,” an approach to real estate that allows companies to track how many people are in different parts of a building, which can help save money on heating, cooling and lighting in unused areas.
But privacy advocates say they are worried about the collection of workers’ personal data.
Companies have tracked employee phone and computer use for years, but these apps “take employee surveillance to a new level,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, an engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.
The apps can cause stress for employees who feel their movements at work are being monitored, she said, especially if the system flags personal information such as when employees who don’t work together spend long periods in each other’s offices, or when someone is using the restroom frequently.
Companies should be transparent about what information they are tracking, how they are using it, who will have access to it and why, Dr. Cranor said. Privacy practices should differ depending on the types of data collected, she said, with the idea that the more personal the information, the more restricted the access should be.
To help ease privacy concerns, companies using building apps should anonymize data whenever possible, said Paul Rohmeyer, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Identifying individuals may be important, for example when contact tracing or investigating a crime committed on the property, but the system default should not be to identify every employee all the time, he said.
The tracking software in building apps should be limited for other reasons as well, Dr. Rohmeyer said. Corporate espionage hackers may be able to identify business processes or what types of deals are in the works by tracking who is meeting together, for example, or they may track the routines of senior leaders.