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Using Facial Recognition to ID People with Coronavirus

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In MilitaryInCyberDefense and In Space News.

Once only a tool in science fiction, facial recognition technology for identification has been creeping its way into the mainstream for well over a decade.

The ongoing global coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly caused severe disruptions to daily life in nearly every country. Despite this, some industries that previously lived on the fringes of business, like telemedicine and video conferencing, are seeing widespread adoption as companies shift to a remote footing for their workers to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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Because personal contact is now largely taboo, many organizations are looking for secure alternatives to previously used biometrics. For example, the New York City Police Department recently stopped using a fingerprint ID entry security procedure. “Until further notice, only scan your ID. Finger scan is NOT required,” orders a large sign that now greets those entering the NYPD headquarters, One Police Plaza.”

But can facial recognition be used to identify people who have coronavirus? And what privacy concerns should we have?

Using Facial Recognition to ID Sick People

According to recent reporting by Security Magazine, DERMALOG, a biometrics company that makes fingerprint, iris, and facial recognition hardware, has adapted its technology to determine peoples’ temperature. DERMALOG is pitching the update as a safety feature.

A recent DERMALOG press release says, “the DERMALOG system detects in real-time the temperature of each visitor as he passes through the entrance and sends the measured values to the control staff via screen notification.”

Such a system can be used effectively for events or large gatherings of people, perhaps before entering the subway, for instance. But widespread CCTV surveillance is not as widely used throughout the United States as it is in other countries like China, Russia or the U.K.

According to IFSEC Global, in London, many of the city’s inhabitants have long been aware of the amount of surveillance infrastructure in place, with plans for this to increase, as suggested in a recent Guardian Podcast. “The industry ministry reportedly has sent a message to the country’s AI companies and research facilities to help identify new ways of containing the coronavirus pandemic.”

Referencing CDC guidelines on COVID-19, the virus often causes a low-grade fever in mild or moderate cases. Such a fever can, at this time, be detected by current facial recognition technology.

Frustration Grows in China as Face Masks Foil Facial Recognition Tech

China is the world leader in the widespread adoption of facial recognition technology; not just as a way to keep tabs on its citizens, but to facilitate numerous routine actions as well.

Face masks are mandatory in two provinces in China and now the Chinese government is struggling with the implications of being unable to surveil who may or may not be infected.

In addition, facial recognition is used in myriad transactions across China from unlocking bank accounts and mobile phones to opening apartment doors.

Recently, however, a company in China acknowledged that it has the technology to even identify people who are wearing masks.

Privacy Concerns in a Post-Snowden Era

According to Lindsey O’Donnell writing on behalf of ThreatPost, “The privacy debate around facial recognition is longstanding. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over its use of facial recognition technology in airports; while California in September passed a bill to ban the use of facial recognition-equipped cameras by law enforcement.”

Thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations, the world is now cognizant of the government’s use of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and cutting-edge technology tools to keep citizens safe from the next terror attack.

Part of the danger of the coronavirus pandemic is that some citizens, feeling increased anxiety or even panic, may be hasty in dispensing with their privacy rights to slow the virus’s spread. The same thing happened in the years immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks; Americans were quick to give the government carte blanche in an effort to stop the next attack, even if that meant developing surveillance tools that would give the executive branch the ability to crush peaceful dissent.

Coronavirus is certainly a threat and we should be employing as many technological tools as possible to slow its spread until a vaccine can be designed, tested and distributed.

However, I would caution that, in this stressful time, not to willingly give away your privacy rights in exchange for new technology tools to help curb the spread of this virus. After all, coronavirus is temporary, but once a government implements a new surveillance technology on its citizens, it tends to be an enduring tool with the potential for abuse.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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