The temperature of your body may no longer be considered your own private information. In fact, public-health experts see temperature-scanning soon becoming as commonplace as metal detectors and security pat-downs.
Many companies and organizations are quickly implementing fever-screening stations and digital trackers to outwit the spread of the coronavirus. And though the Food and Drug Administration typically requires testing of thermal scanners, they’ve been quiet about the scanners’ widespread implementation: “In general, FDA’s guidance documents…do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities.” The federal law on patient privacy—the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)— puts surprisingly few restrictions on employers. As a result, companies are forging their own approaches to health-screening accuracy and privacy, with mixed results.
What are Biometrics?
Biometrics are the biological measurements of humans. Biometric data may include height, facial features, fingerprints, and body temperature. Once recorded with biometrics, identity is established for a lifetime.
What Does This Mean for K-12?
Many in the ed-tech community feel that biometrics in schools will one day be a given. But—with the capability of thermal cameras to conduct mass fever screenings of many students simultaneously—COVID-19 has fast-tracked the notion of biometric technology in our classrooms and schools.
Schools and districts across the country are struggling to adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety recommendations for reopening in the vague future. Considerations include cleaning supplies, protective equipment, and additional staff such as custodians, nurses, bus aides, teachers and teacher aides. These expenses could result in a staggering $500 per student of additional funds.
“Biometrics? That sounds great but I don’t have any money to buy any of that, or the resources to implement it, ” says Tim Lauer, Principal of Mabel Rush Elementary School in Newberg, Oregon. “I have one thermometer in my school! And the state has said that we should have kids entering the building from different entrances based on where their classrooms are. For 30 years, we’ve been hardening our schools because of Columbine. And now it’s like, ‘Go ahead and use these side entrances and have people check kids as they come in.’ Sure, we could figure out how to do that, but it will mean reassigning and training staff. There’s an inherent cost in all this that is not being discussed. And we’re hurtling toward September with so much up in the air."
Schools employing this technology should think about where it will be set up, as it reads the temperature radiating from people’s skin, and—since children will be coming in from outside—kiosks shouldn’t be placed right by entrances. Staff members will also need to be on hand in case elevated temperatures are detected.
And even if schools are able to find the necessary funds to make buildings safer, what about such considerations as school buses? Will fleets be expanded to accommodate social distancing guidelines? Will health technicians be available to test students for high temperatures before boarding?
It's important to note that parental involvement is still very much at play. For instance, one of the largest districts in Florida, Broward, allows parents to opt-out of vision, health, BMI, and hearing screenings for their children. Will parents be able to opt-out of temperature screenings as well? If so, do those students pose a risk to others?
“Society has lots of issues that we are trying to resolve and we often look to schools to address them,” says Tim Lauer. “But we don’t really resource schools in a way that makes it effective to do that. We like to say we have something in place because it makes us feel better, but is that something that is serving a purpose or is being done well?”
A Real-time Experiment for Education
Molloy College in New York state is purchasing facial recognition kiosks that also check for temperature. If a student is registered as having a fever, the kiosks automatically send a report to student health services.
Meanwhile, Illinois state guidelines allow schools to either conduct temperature checks on everyone coming into school buildings, or for students to “self-certify” themselves for symptoms. Given the size and complexity of districts, schools will more than likely opt for self-certification.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, schools have mostly reopened, with digital scanning for high temperatures becoming standard procedure. At SM Cheras Perdana, for instance, students walk past “attendance zones” for facial detection. Kiosks take the temperature of students and link to their face ID, allowing school administrators to view students’ attendance via their digital face recognition system.
In Russia, a dystopian prophecy turns true as roughly 43,000 schools will be equipped with facial recognition cameras dubbed “Orwell.” The Orwell platform is an image-recognition monitoring system that is meant to ensure student safety, reports The Moscow Times.
Apart from the fever-detection aspect, biometrics in education is advertised as a way to streamline daily operations, accountability, attendance, access, and security. It claims to ensure that student work and exams are submitted by the appropriate students, while capturing precise student records is also a potential benefit. But what cost comes with all of this convenience?
Prevention or Privacy?
Researchers assessing thermal cameras for the Electronic Frontier Foundation claimed that the current pandemic could be used as a “Trojan Horse” for unproven surveillance techniques: “A new network of surveillance cameras with dubious thermal measuring capabilities is not a tool we should deploy.” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, concurs: “We are accepting encroachments on privacy here that we would not normally accept. We need to be vigilant to make sure that they don’t outlast this crisis.”
Many data privacy advocates are concerned that a surveillance infrastructure built to respond to COVID-19 could become permanent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation worries that “fever detection cameras” may outlive their usefulness during this public health crisis, affecting freedom via lack of anonymity, and potentially aiding in the over-policing of vulnerable populations.
“There is always this aspect to technology,” says Tim Lauer. “We can do it but should we do it? Whenever you have systems that gather information, that information gets stored. You have HIPPA, you have FERPA, and all these privacy standards that you have to follow. So if every day you are walking in and having your temperature taken, what happens to that data? What happens if there is a data breach?” And as with any biometric data bank, what occurs if insurance companies base their coverage decisions on how often an applicant has been feverish?
But perhaps the most compelling argument against using thermal cameras is that they may simply be ineffective. The technology won’t catch people who are asymptomatic (those who have the virus but have no symptoms), and it won’t catch people who are pre-symptomatic (those who recently contracted COVID-19 but aren’t yet showing symptoms). A 2014 CDC guide said thermal scanner cameras are not as accurate as non-contact thermometer guns, and may be more difficult to use effectively.
“So let’s say we’ve got all this tech to just get kids in the building,” says Tim Lauer. “And once they are, what are the guidelines for social distancing within a classroom? Everyone is saying six feet apart. Well, OK, so let’s talk about six-feet-apart fire drills; I’ll be having kids out in the field, spread out for miles! But seriously: independent of the technology available, you have to develop a whole series of processes to deal with a kid who spikes in temperature. I can’t just send a sick student to the office, because I don’t want that student coming into the building. Am I going to have covered tents outside?” Tim adds with a weary laugh; “I’m kind of thinking, at this point, maybe we should just focus our efforts on doing virtual learning better!”
The current COVID-19 pandemic clearly shows that we are at a techno-ethical crossroads. We are developing technologies to counteract the spread of a terrible disease at an incredible pace that may leave privacy considerations behind in the dust. When the pandemic ends, we must be mindful of the type of future society we want to live in. Do we want our old one back, or do we want a new one where widespread surveillance is the norm in the name of public health?