West Point Cadets Are Donning Smartwatches for a Military Contact-Tracing Test

Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are now wearing smart watches that can track their proximity to other cadets in a military-led effort to show how the technology could prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Most of the 4,600 cadets at West Point are participating in the voluntary limited-user test to evaluate the effectiveness of digital proximity logging to enhance contact tracing activities during the pandemic.

The test is set to run until next spring and study how commercial, wearable devices could help prevent community spread, William Cohen, the chief technology officer and senior technology adviser to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASAALT), told defense reporters Thursday during a telephonic roundtable.

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Last week, each cadet was issued a Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 that can transmit data daily to a server system that allows officials to track interactions between devices.

“The devices that we are using do not track individuals,” Cohen said. “All we are collecting is information about what is the relationship between one device and another device in time and proximity.”

In manual contact tracing, “somebody would be contacting you and saying, ‘Hey, do you remember all the interactions you have had in the last X days?” Cohen said.

“If you think about your own lives, that would be extremely difficult to do with precision,” he said. “This enhances manual contract tracing … so that leaders would have data to say, ‘OK, we understand where these devices were in relation to each other, and therefore we know who should be quarantined, who should be tested.’ And leaders can make those decisions based on how they work with the medical community to help set.”

West Point officials are “very, very grateful” to be part of the test and plan to use the information to bolster the school’s contact-tracing effort, said Col. Ed Teague, the chief information officer at West Point.

And the only way to be sure it will work is to use the technology as part of the school’s COVID-19 response effort.

“Once we identify [that] somebody who might carry one of these devices is, in fact, COVID-19 positive, we will go through the paces of using that technology and use that information to augment the contact-tracing ability that we have to rapidly implement a solution in appropriate radius around the COVID-19-positive person,” Teague said. “You can actually decode the information — device A has been in close proximity to device B; we know who those individuals are. We can then use that as a guide to augment the contact tracing that we have already been doing since about March.”

Cadets are being asked to wear the devices whenever possible, but they won’t have to wear them when they leave the campus for winter break, Teague said, adding that the test is limited strictly to West Point.

The effort is part of a “rising tide of the idea of using wearables in the Army for all sorts of things,” Cohen said.

“We are trying to show with the greatest amount of fidelity … what does this give you to use across the force,” he added. “There are a lot of different devices you can use, but how would you collect the data, how would you deal with the data in a way that gives you actional intel to actually do something with it — that’s the important part.

“For us, it’s creating the foundation of how you gather and use data, using wearables, that allows many others to work on, frankly, things that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The Army is also working with the Navy on a similar study on two of its ships to see how close-quarters contact on a vessel is different from the West Point environment, said Cohen, who would not name the ships involved in that test.

Once the West Point test is complete, it will “feed the joint services … with the best possible data, the best possible decisions on what moving forward looks like,” he said. It’s not clear if the military has any interest in a broader smartwatch program, or if there’s any interest in pursuing a mandatory contact-tracing program.

“What we are doing in this limited-user test is helping the joint services decide how to attack this problem going forward, even past COVID-19,” Cohen said. “You can imagine the benefits of understanding the health of your workforce, based on any sickness, a rampant flu or a terrible cold.

“So, the test is feeding a longer-term solution, and that is what makes it really interesting.”

— Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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