Surveillance tech will be big for reopenings. Can it keep privacy concerns in check?

Thermal cameras might help economies reopen without un-flattening the curve.

April 29, 2020

Smile! Whenever society emerges from lockdown, the cameras will be watching.

Businesses worldwide are investing in AI-powered thermal cameras and screening stations to keep tabs on the health of their workers and customers.

The surveillance hardware could become part of a new normal as governments look for ways to reopen their economies — without un-flattening the dang curve.

The other challenge: making sure the heat-checking tech doesn’t light people’s privacy rights on fire.

Turns out you can teach an old cam new tricks

Thermal-imaging cameras — a new spin on the security cams of old — are promising for a few reasons: Companies can monitor multiple people at once. And unlike a chaperone at a middle-school dance, they can enforce keep-your-distance rules from a safe distance.

The Washington Post and Reuters found that the market for thermal-imaging tech is running hot — FLIR Systems, a major manufacturer, has seen its stock price soar by 60% in recent weeks.

But the market is also a bit of an unregulated Wild West:

  • The Food and Drug Administration said it “does not intend to object” to the use of the technology for initial body-temp measurements.
  • The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission said businesses can take employees’ temperatures — and send them home if they’re showing symptoms.

Is a corona diagnosis the new badge of shame?

The president of the National Workrights Institute told the Post that being sent home after showing signs of a fever would be like getting “stamped with the scarlet letter.”

Privacy advocates worry that unproven systems could cause many false positives. And once employers plug in Big Brother, they may not want to go back — there would be few incentives for companies to put their new toys away after the pandemic fades.

Businesses are turning the cams on anyway

City Farmers Market, in Atlanta, tells customers that it’s using cameras for temperature screening at its entrances, and temp-checking kiosks will be key to casinos’ plans to get the poker tables running again.

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