As Hawaii continues to test facial recognition and thermal scanning technology this week for a pilot program to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a civil rights group is raising concerns about invasion of privacy.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation announced the program’s launch on June 10, saying five companies — NEC and Infrared Cameras, which are now partnering with each other, FLIR, iOmniscient and Omnisense — will demonstrate their technologies at Honolulu, Kailua-Kona, Hilo, Kahului and Lihue airports.
The state will pick one bidder after June 26 to install cameras at gates to screen travelers with temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees.
However, the announcement provided few details about important factors, including how the technology actually works, how much it’s going to cost, what the rules and guidelines are and who will have access to the data, said Mateo Caballero, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which has submitted a letter calling on the state to “hit the brakes” on the pilot program
“That’s one of the big problems — that we know so little,” he said.
“These are things we should know before we take such a big leap into real-time biometric surveillance at the airports,” he added.
The ACLU of Hawaii is asking the state to release all government records related to the use of the facial recognition technology in Hawaii, and respond to its concerns about the potential for abuse.
“While we understand the urgent need to fight the spread of COVID-19 and safely reopen Hawaii’s economy,” the ACLU letter says, “indiscriminate and rushed use of FRT—particularly without adequate regulations, transparency, and public discussion—is ineffective, unnecessary, rife for abuse, expensive, potentially unconstitutional, and, in a word, ‘terrifying.’”
DOT Spokesman Tim Sakahara said the scanning technology takes a picture of people walking through the thermal scanners who exceed the temperature threshold.
“That’s simply for the employees to have the ability to pull them aside,” he said. “If someone walks through and they don’t have a fever, their picture would not be taken at all.”
When pictures are taken, they won’t be shared with other agencies and the pictures will be deleted within about 30 minutes, he said.
“People have their pictures taken about a dozen times a day once they leave their house without knowing,” he added.
Rules governing the use of the facial recognition technology, including how long the pictures are kept, are being developed by state officials, including the transportation department and the attorney general’s office, Sakahara said. The security of the data will be determined by the selected company.
The data would not include any sensitive information, he said.
“People should not think of the features in a spy movie,” he said.
The problem with facial recognition technology is that unlike most other biometric systems, such as fingerprinting, it can be used in a “passive” way that doesn’t require any participation, said ACLU’s Caballero.
“You’re being followed without you knowing you’re being followed,” he said. “This is a technology that could potentially be unconstitutional.”
Yet, the technology also has the potential to miss people who actually have the virus but do not have a fever, because research suggests that temperature checks alone are not a reliable way of determining COVID-19 infections, he said.
“To me, it feels like adopting technology for the sake of technology,” Caballero said. “Ultimately, what we’re asking for now is transparency and open discussions. You need the public’s buy-in.”
His organization has already heard from interisland travelers who have privacy concerns because of surveillance at Hawaii airports, he said. For example, the state tried to subpoena Hawaiian Airlines records for people who had donated their miles to people participating in demonstrations on Mauna Kea.
The debate over the use of facial recognition technology is not unique to Hawaii. It has drawn widespread criticism over lack of regulation, the possibility of faulty technology and bias, among other issues. The ACLU’s national organization has sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies over their use of the technology. That litigation is ongoing.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has created an opportunity for technology companies, with some of them — including those bidding for the pilot project with Hawaii — creating COVID-19-specific products.
“Governments and businesses across the globe are hard at work developing new processes to ensure public health and safety from COVID-19, including the use of radiometric thermal imaging cameras as part of a comprehensive frontline screening program,” Jim Cannon, president and CEO at FLIR, says on the company’s website.
FLIR’s Screen-EST product is designed to “automatically take a skin temperature measurement near the tear duct of each person, the surface area most closely correlated to core body temperature,” according to the company’s website, and costs $595 per unit.
NEC, a Tokyo IT company, is partnering with Texas-based Infrared Cameras for the Hawaii pilot project, Sakahara of the transportation department said.
iOmniscient is an Australia company that specializes in artificial intelligence, and Omnisense is a South Carolina wireless sensor network company.
The exact cost of the project is yet to be determined, Sakahara said. But ultimately, he says it will be a cost-efficient way to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“This technology will help with efficiency in identifying people with a fever at the airports to help keep the community safe,” he said. “This would equate to hundreds of employees statewide and cost millions of dollars.”
Currently, the Hawaii National Guard assists with passenger temperature checks using infrared thermometers at the airports.
Sakahara said the state plans to keep the facial recognition and thermal scanner equipment past the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coronavirus is not just going to disappear,” he said. “It would continue to be used at the airports statewide to continue to monitor. You don’t want people who are sick with fever traveling anyway, whether it’s coronavirus or not.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.