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Thermal cameras are big business in battle with COVID-19 but experts raise questions

Passengers at a private airport in Washington state have their temperatures measured with thermal cameras (Photo: KOMO)
Passengers at a private airport in Washington state have their temperatures measured with thermal cameras (Photo: KOMO)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — Companies nationwide are looking for tools to help them open back up and operate safely. Some are considering thermal cameras they say can track temperatures in an effort to flag potential cases of coronavirus among employees and customers. But experts are raising important questions about whether they’re effective and worth the risk to your privacy.

Daniel Putterman, the CEO of California-based tech company, Kogniz, puts thermal cameras to work, using members of his family to show how the company's technology could potentially help in the battle against coronavirus. The technology, which Putterman says has already been sold and deployed at hundreds of private companies, can scan the temperatures of anyone it sees at a certain distance. "It incorporates a very high-resolution thermal camera that’s designed to read skin temperature specifically and it’s married with an optical camera. They’re seeing the same thing."

"We’re able to get a sense of what the environment is on the outside and we actually use that to correct the temperature in real time," said Kogniz CEO Daniel Putterman of AI being used to determine temperature using thermal camera systems.

The system Kogniz developed is already being used at processing plants and warehouses according to Putterman. It uses not just cameras, but also unique artificial intelligence or AI to continuously track body temperatures that have been normalized factoring in the outside environment. With the help of facial recognition, their technology can then identify an individual with a potential fever so the companies who use the system can decide whether they want to take action.

"We’re trying to prescreen and get some information to people in real-time," explained Putterman during a remote demonstration for the Spotlight on America team.

Thermal camera systems have become big business in the coronavirus crisis because of their potential to flag someone with a fever, although health experts point out that's just one of many potential COVID-19 symptoms. It’s already being used on people coming into hospitals, including one in New Hampshire that talked with our affiliate WJLA. “We are actually really excited that this process has actually worked pretty well," Amanda L. Singleton with the VA Manchester Healthcare System said.

A private airport in Washington state has also rolled out thermal cameras as part of what it calls a fever detection system. Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports told our affiliate KOMO, “Nobody wants to be sitting next to somebody who has a 104-degree temperature, and I certainly want to keep our passengers as safe as possible.”

This spring the Food and Drug Administration issued recommendations for expanding the use of thermal cameras in response to coronavirus as an initial measurement during triage. But studies related to prior disease outbreaks have questioned their effectiveness in stopping the spread of disease. And Flir, a Virginia-based company that's a major player in the industry, even posts a disclaimer on its website saying thermal cameras can’t be used to detect a virus or infection and that its products are not used to diagnose the coronavirus.

The American Civil Liberties Union is among the groups raising questions about the use of thermal cameras and other potentially privacy-invasive technologies in this crisis. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU told Spotlight on America we need to closely evaluate how tools measure temperature, identify people and store data, "Every citizen should be asking, "Is that sacrifice I’m making, is this something that’s actually something that’s going to be effective or is this public health security theater?"

Stanley has argued against the use of thermal cameras, expressing major concerns not only with their effectiveness in stopping the spread of disease but also how much they could intrude on your privacy, especially if they’re paired with facial recognition that stores data and influences decisions.

"I think everybody acknowledges that in a time of pandemic that we have to give away some of our privacy if it's going to help stop this pandemic. But that can be a big if," Stanley said. "We don't want to enter a world where we everyone can go around taking all our physiological signs without our permission or knowledge."

That’s why privacy advocates like Jeramie Scott, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says regulations and rules about how cameras and other technology being adapted for COVID-19 can be used during the crisis and the future. He believes Congress may eventually tackle the issue. In the meantime, Scott says companies that use thermal cameras should be upfront with their employees.

"A lot of times we don't have the regulations or rules in place to deal with how those technologies will be used after the crisis has passed, not to mention how they should be used in the context of the crisis,' said Jeramie Scott with EPIC.

"Management should be extremely transparent with their workers and also those workers should have a say so they understand what's going on and they understand what technology is surveilling them so they understand why, what information might be collected and how it's going to be used and how long it's going to be retained," Scott told us.

With the Kogniz thermal camera technology, Putterman says you can turn off facial recognition completely, eliminating that privacy concern. As for measuring the potential for fevers, he says that's says just part of our new normal. "Our temperature is no longer private information. And if you don’t want your temperature taken you probably should go home," Putterman said. "It’s a vital piece of information. We’re trying to keep these buildings green and safe."

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Health experts say fever isn’t the only symptom to consider when it comes to coronavirus and some people with the disease may be asymptomatic. That’s why if thermal cameras are used, they should have a secondary confirmation of the illness. On the privacy side, both Stanley and Scott say technology being used specifically in the fight against coronavirus should have firm end dates. "We certainly don't want to give up privacy and never be able to get it back again even after we have a vaccine and COVID is a thing of the past," Stanley said.

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