Global concern over the coronavirus spreading on contaminated surfaces in public places is unleashing rapid development of innovative biometric products that could assist a touchless society.
The New York City Police Department recently stopped using its fingerprint identification security procedure for employees entering buildings, for example, contributing to a spike in demand for contactless identification alternatives. The pandemic is also prompting facial recognition companies worldwide to track citizens who may have tested positive for the virus.
China is reportedly installing facial recognition to detect infected individuals on smart healthcare buses that screen passengers while they ride. The buses, developed by Shanghai-based Sunwin Bus Corporation, use artificial intelligence (AI) and an infrared thermal-imaging camera that alerts the driver when a febrile person boards the bus and flags individuals who may not be wearing masks. They are also designed to kill the COVID-19 virus with ultraviolet (UV) lighting in the air ducts.
Japanese developers are introducing a range of innovations, including biometric authentication provider NEC’s new security gates that can identify individuals even when they are wearing face masks. Transportation systems supplier Fujitec and sensing technologies manufacturer Optex, also both based in Japan, are exploring ways to bring contactless hand signals to places such as elevators to open doors.
NEC announced earlier this month that it had named a new CEO, Aalok Kumar, for its Indian branch, effective immediately, to help grow its global biometrics and digital business, developing biometrics, Big Data and other technologies. One recent NEC Technologies India project was a contract with the Airports Authority of India to implement paperless biometric boarding platforms at four different airports to support Digi Yatra, an initiative for the digital processing of passengers at airports.
IT companies in Hyderabad, India, are meanwhile disabling fingerprint-based biometric systems, substituting such measures with card-based verification or facial biometrics. The companies need these authentication measures to mark attendance and track entry and exit of employees after one worker tested positive for COVID-19 last month in the capital of southern India’s Telangana state.
The push to draw back the use of fingerprint-based devices is wreaking havoc for fingerprint scanner manufacturers, however.
“People like facial and iris recognition companies are saying, ‘Well you don’t want to use fingerprint scanners anymore, they’re bad for you because of the virus.' I think that’s a little ridiculous,” said David Gerulski, executive vice president of Integrated Biometrics, a mobile fingerprint scanner provider, according to OneZero.
Integrated Biometrics is suggesting that consumers use hand sanitizer and wipe down the fingerprint scanner after use. The company also noted that using a device such as an iris scanner can still pose a risk as it requires close contact to a shared surface.
German biometrics company Dermalog, maker of fingerprint, iris and facial recognition hardware, recently announced it had adapted cameras to gauge body temperature. It introduced the tool at the Tire Technology Expo in Hannover at the end of February to help protect some 5,000 attendees. The system can scan up to five people for fevers in real time as they pass through the entrance, and it sends measured temperatures to staff. It can detect a high fever with accuracy from up to 2 meters away.
Dermalog noted that fevers were a symptom in nearly 90 percent of individuals who received COVID-19 diagnoses in China, making screening a valuable tool to prevent the spread of the virus. The company recently piloted its biometric border control system with integrated fever detection at the Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The system can identify fingerprints and faces, take travelers’ temperatures and notify border officers if travelers need to be sent for health checks.
Facial recognition combined with temperature sensing has become commonplace in Shanghai, China, but citizens are wondering whether this level of surveillance will subside after the virus has been contained.
“This epidemic undoubtedly provides more reason for the government to surveil the public,” said activist Wang Aizhong, who is based in Guangzhou, China. “I don’t think authorities will rule out keeping this up after the outbreak.”
These surveillance technologies are opening a hornet’s nest of privacy and security concerns for citizens. The greatest concern is whether the U.S. government will follow in the footsteps of many Asian nations in relaxing protections of citizen’s data to track individuals suffering from COVID-19 and identify those with whom they have been in contact. The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group developed a smartphone app that allows users to scan quick response (QR) codes via Alipay or WeChat to determine if they are in the presence of someone who has — or had — the virus.
COVID-19’s rapid spread has enabled the emergence of a diverse array of powerful new surveillance technology to slow transmission, but governments will have to carefully consider how to regulate tools that may compromise individuals' privacies.