The stuff of futuristic sci-fi movies is very quickly becoming our brave new normal in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and yes, cutting-edge technology is most certainly playing a role.
In Italy, Dubai, China, and other nations around the world, police forces are putting in orders for thermal imaging helmets which can scan the temperatures of passersby, Business Insider reports.
The helmets are produced by the Chinese firm KC Wearable and while they are effective at scanning for temperatures, experts are concerned that, considering some people may have fevers due to causes other than COVID-19 while others may carry the disease and present no symptoms, they’re certainly not failsafe.
To say nothing of the gross invasion of privacy concerns that such a device, in the hands of law enforcement, poses to citizens of free nations.
The video starts with appropriately menacing music. On the left is a motionless police officer, face hidden by an outsized helmet with a camera mounted on top. On the right is the live feed from the helmet itself, showing people walking around in face masks. A number displays above their heads as they move around – their live body temperature, as captured by the helmet’s infrared camera.
This is a YouTube video advertising the wares of KC Wearable, one of many Chinese companies pushing futuristic surveillance tech to keep track of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Its KC N901 smart helmet is equipped with an ARM processor, an augmented reality display screen, an infrared camera, and a visible light camera. According to device specifications seen by Business Insider, the wearer can detect the temperature, to within 0.3 degrees Celsius, of passers-by within around two meters.
It’s not just temperatures, either. Any wearer of the helmet would be able to measure the temperature of a specific individual, the temperatures of people passing by in crowds, can a person’s QR code for personal data, and even recognize license plates, see people in the dark, or apply facial recognition.
The company says that any information captured by the helmet is stored within it.
If this doesn’t have your liberty sense tingling, I don’t know what will.
Dr. Jie Guo, the global chief of KC wearable, over 1,000 of these helmets are already in use across China. Each unit costs between $US5,000 to $US7,000, and as several customers have tried out early samples and later placed larger orders, one unnamed country, Guo said, has ordered hundreds of helmets while more international deals are supposedly on the way.
The company claims to have sent helmets to Italy’s military police and the Dutch government for testing, while police in Dubai are already using the devices.
Naturally, this product, and its prospective use by law enforcement agencies, is raising more than a few eyebrows from international experts. As BI explains:
Professor Davey Jones of Bangor University, who led a research project into the spread of COVID-19, pointed to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which fumbled its response as the coronavirus spread through the vessel, infecting around 700 people and killing eight.
“At least 25% of the [ship’s] population had no symptoms whatsoever, so clearly they’re not running a temperature,” he said. “So you end up missing a huge percentage of these people and they are still shedding the virus.”
Professor Jones added that people could be running a temperature for a number of other reasons, such as going through the menopause. “That leads to a whole bunch of false positives,” he said.
Dr Chris Wright, a medical doctor and expert in thermal imaging at the University of Exeter, said temperature scanning could be useful “if done correctly.”
The most precise way of taking someone’s temperature is via the inner corner of the eye, he said.
“The person needs to face the camera squarely because the reading will be affected by angle,” he told BI via email. “Also, distance is key. Too close and the reading will be overtly affected by the camera operator, too far away, and sensitivity is lost.”
For scanning in clinical settings, Dr Wright added, you need a high-resolution camera. He pointed us to one example he uses, a FLIR device, which has a resolution of 640 x 480. That compares to the smart helmet’s infrared camera resolution of 384 x 288.
Such devices, he argued, can be useful at airports, supermarkets, or even at entrances to doctors’ surgeries, as long as they use a high-resolution camera.
The idea has been mooted before, Dr Wright said, pointing to airports using thermal scanning during the SARS outbreak in Asia, but there are questions over how effective that was.
A study published by Eurosurveillance in February concluded: “Airport screening is unlikely to detect a sufficient proportion of 2019-nCoV [coronavirus] infected travellers to avoid entry of infected travellers.”
“It will identify some high-temperature cases but sensitivity will be poor,” Dr Wright cautioned.
So not only do the helmets pose major privacy concerns, it’s not even entirely clear that they’d be effective at what they’re meant to do.
Will that stop the further production and distribution of these helmets? Most likely not.
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