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Privacy Rights Group Urges Caution over Airport Thermal Imaging Scanners

Ross Kelly

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Thermal Imaging

Campaigners are concerned that experimental imaging devices could negatively impact holiday-makers.

Privacy rights group Big Brother Watch has called for airports to stop using thermal imaging cameras amid fears over data privacy.

Thermal scanners are currently being trialled at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 immigration hall, as well as at Bournemouth Airport.

While it is claimed the cameras are capable of detecting if a person has a fever, which is a key symptom of Covid-19, Big Brother Watch has questioned their effectiveness.

According to the group, thermal imaging cameras “cannot detect fevers”, and the use of such devices may breach data protection and privacy rights legislation.

Heathrow Airport has said that the use of thermal surveillance may lead to “escalations to healthcare professionals” if passengers are found to have a fever. However, this could lead to “significant automated decisions based on experimental surveillance”, the privacy rights group warned.

Thermal cameras deployed at Heathrow use infrared technology to estimate a passenger’s skin temperature and log a person’s estimated age group, gender, movement speed, clothing and “other generic information which may cause a person to have an elevated temperature”, such as a passenger carrying a hot drink.

Experts have warned that temperature screening may be ineffective as a method to monitor and track carriers of Covid-19. This is largely due to the virus’ incubation period and the proportion of asymptomatic infections.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently stated: “Temperature screening alone may not be very effective as it may miss travellers incubating the disease or travellers concealing fever during travel, or it may yield false positives.”

Thermal imaging has yielded little success as a surveillance model, experts have warned. During a seasonal flu epidemic, a New Zealand study found that airport thermal scanners were “not much better than chance” at identifying travellers carrying the flu.

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Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch warned that thermal cameras are a “lurch towards biosurveillance and pervasive health monitoring”.

Long-term, this is more likely to benefit the surveillance industry than deliver benefits to public health, she insisted.

“There’s a lack of scientific evidence to support their use and the WHO, among other world experts, has cautioned against temperature screening for coronavirus. The airports are simply using them for security theatre in an attempt to get business going again,” Carlo said.

Critically, Heathrow Airport said it believes the thermal imaging systems will boost passenger confidence as lockdown measures begin to ease globally. The airport also said it is considering the roll-out of “facial recognition thermal screening technology”.

Big Brother Watch described the controversial proposals as “unacceptable and highly likely to be unlawful”.

In a letter to the airports, Big Brother Watch said: “In a pandemic, misplaced confidence deriving from surveillance marketing rather than scientific evidence endangers public health.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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