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Interest in Thermal Imaging Is Growing as COVID-19 Rages On

The heat-reading surveillance systems have been sold as a potential "virus spotter," but state and local governments may be hesitant to adopt them over privacy and civil liberty concerns.

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After COVID-19 began sweeping across the country earlier this year, thermal camera and sensor vendor FLIR Systems began marketing its products as a way to help screen people for fevers.  

The cameras, which can read heat signatures on people and objects, have traditionally been used in industrial and military settings, but FLIR believes they could be used to help organizations navigate the pandemic and evaluate illness

"We've just seen an immense uptick in interest since all this started," said Chris Bainter, global business development director with FLIR, discussing the global interest from public and private organizations alike. 

FLIR is not alone. Thermal cameras are seeing an industry boom, and many other security firms across the globe have begun marketing their products as potential tools to deploy against the spread of illness. In the last few weeks, sales have been brisk, said Lisa Falzone, CEO of Athena Security, which recently launched its Fever Detection COVID-19 Screening System.  

Much of this buying has been going on in the private sector: according to Bainter, his company has recently developed contracts with restaurant owners, grocery stores, events vendors, and others. Similarly, Falzone said her company has seen interest from all over.

“Last week was to a hospital, next is a 911 call center and an airport after that, but the orders are coming in from all walks of life, businesses large and small that want a pre-screening technology in place," she said, in an email.  

However, these cameras don't detect the virus itself, they merely measure whether a person has an elevated skin temperature or not, said Bainter. This means that they aren't a catch-all solution, but rather, could be integrated into a broader public health and safety process involving screening and diagnosis.

Hypothetically, these devices could have many uses for governments. City halls and mayor's offices could identify sick staff before they entered a building; airports could screen passengers to cut down on the likelihood of national or international carriers; and jails and prisons might be able to prevent an outbreak before it occurs.  

In other parts of the world — such as Europe and large parts of Asia — this is already taking place. There, thermal imaging systems are being paired with other tech like facial recognition, movement predictive algorithms and data tracking to help contain the virus.

At the pandemic's ground zero, in Wuhan, China, transportation hubs recently began rolling out thermal imaging systems designed to spot people with fevers. This system, which is designed to set off an alert when an individual's temperature rises above 37 degrees centigrade, also has an AI-driven facial recognition component that can identify specific individuals. 

For obvious reasons, federal or municipal deployment of such technology in the U.S. has had its detractors, and civil liberty activists worry that the tech goes too far in its pursuit of safety.  

The privacy-concerned Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently published a statement on thermal cameras, calling into question the accuracy of the technology, and arguing that the surveillance infrastructure being built up now might become permanent even if the virus goes away. 

"After 9/11, we got the Patriot Act," said Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst with EFF. "A lot of times [after a large event] the initial public safety concerns allows people to ignore or disregard the long term civil liberties implications, because of the initial panic. Terrorism is one thing — because it's an ongoing problem. But there's no reason why this kind of technology would need to stick around after the COVID-19 crisis is over." 

This cautiousness when it comes to privacy is a style that many U.S. municipalities have begun to integrate into their local legal systems -- making swift deployment of such new, largely untested technology unlikely. 

In Seattle, for instance, a long-standing "surveillance ordinance" requires that any new technology operated by the city go through a rigorous vetting process that includes public comment and participation from the city's chief technology officer and the city council. 

Part of this process requires the city to develop surveillance impact reports (SIRs) that review any worrying social implications that the technology might pose for the community (this includes a "Civil Liberties and Privacy Assessment"), deliver the SIRs to the council, who then vote on whether to adopt the solution or not. If adopted, the technology is then committed to a "Master List" of surveillance technologies that any resident can look up online. 

"If we're going to collect this type of information or if the city intends to do so, [the point of the ordinance] is that we're going to do so with the public's knowledge and approval," said Anthony Derek, digital associate with the Seattle Mayor's Office. "Technologies obviously come with a lot of inherent risks ... [any new surveillance technologies] wouldn't be adopted without strict review that shows the potential risks are either non-existent or outweigh the safety benefits." 

Derek said he wasn't aware of Seattle having been courted by technology firms like FLIR or Athena for thermal reading cameras. Even if it had, it's unlikely that the technology would make it through the city's vetting process in a timely manner. Currently, there are several surveillance products that are pending review, but they were introduced before the COVID-19 crisis took off and, given the city's focus on keeping things running smoothly amidst the virus, are unlikely to be vetted anytime soon, he said.  

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.