New coronavirus-era surveillance and biometric systems pose logistical, privacy problems

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the globe, new surveillance methods are already raising new privacy and security challenges despite the still-early days of this crisis. Chief among these potential problems is the sudden turn by the government toward using geolocation data to track millions of Americans’ cell phones in monitoring the spread of the disease.

Silicon Valley giants, including Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook, have already been called into the White House to brainstorm ways to use geolocation, public media scraping and other technologies to track users in ways that ostensibly don’t violate users’ privacy. Meanwhile, phone carriers across Europe are sharing data with authorities while Israeli intelligence agencies are using phone tracking technology initially developed to combat terrorism in the fight against COVID-19

Touch-based biometric authentication shunned

Biometric and facial recognition technologies are also rapidly being adopted, and in some cases, melded together in new ways to battle the disease’s outbreak. Part of what is spurring the no-contact version of identity verification is the growing fear that fingerprint or hand scanners used to control facility access are potential vectors for the disease’s spread.

In New York, municipal workers are balking at the use of hand scanners to check in. The New York Police Department has halted its use of fingerprint entry security procedures amid fears of picking up COVID-19 from the keypad surfaces. Even condo associations are jettisoning biometric-based systems used to permit building entry.

Emerging biometrics combine new and old technology

These are a few examples of how biometric technology is evolving during the COVID crisis:

  • In China, tablets affixed to the back of bus drivers’ seats record passengers’ body temperatures and take snapshots of their faces. The photos are used later for contact tracing if a passenger tests positive for coronavirus.
  • In the US, threat detection screening company Athena Security, whose system was previously used to detect guns, now offers what it calls its “Fever Detection COVID19 Screening System.” It deploys “artificially intelligent thermal cameras” to detect fevers and alert customers to the presence of someone who may be carrying the coronavirus. Athena is pitching its product to be used in grocery stores, hospitals and voting locations and is currently deploying it at government agencies, airports and Fortune 500 companies.
  • Dermalog, a biometrics company that makes fingerprint, iris and facial recognition technology, has now added a feature to determine temperature and is pitching it as a new security feature to companies. The Thai government is already using Dermalog’s technology as part of its border control system.
  • Telpo is launching temperature-sensing systems as part of its facial recognition technology, which works even if individuals are wearing masks.
  • Chinese company Wisesoft says it has developed a 3D facial recognition in conjunction with Sichuan University that can identify people wearing masks with 98% accuracy and collect their body temperatures. One hospital in Chengdu has already deployed 140 units of the company’s product.
  • Another Chinese company, Hanvon, has developed technology that can detect faces through masks and also collects body temperatures.

Patrick Grother, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he works on biometric standards and testing, tells CSO he hasn’t tested any of these new technologies, but adds that thermal cameras that measure body temperature have been prevalent for some time in the Far East. “You don’t see them in the states, but you see them in airports in the Far East. You come through primary immigration, and they’ll have a thermal camera on a tripod, and it’s just looking for anybody with a fever,” he says.

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