Police officers in at least three countries have begun testing the use of surveillance helmets that can scan pedestrians for fevers as they walk past. Chinese firm KC Wearable is selling the helmet, which features an infrared camera and an augmented reality screen so officers can watch for potential COVID-19 cases in real-time. If this sounds dystopian, that's because it is.
KC Wearable claims the helmet has a 96 percent accuracy rate for scanning temperatures. The helmets cost between $5,000 and $7,000 per unit. There are concerns, though. First, temperature scanning isn't a foolproof way to detect the coronavirus, and second, this sort of technology is ripe for abuse, particularly when paired with the sort of facial recognition tech pedaled by the likes of Clearview AI and increasingly in use by police departments.
In a video created by the company — which inexplicably uses Windows error sounds for its background music — you can see an officer standing in place as pedestrians stream by, with color readings on their bodies and temperature numbers displaying above their heads.
Questions about effectiveness — There are fundamental problems with this product, as Business Insider outlines in its report on the devices. For one, some people can have the disease and are asymptomatic, so they spread coronavirus but don't get a fever themselves. Other people, meanwhile, may show high temperatures but for other reasons, like menopause or allergies.
One expert in thermal imaging, Dr. Chris Wright from the University of Exeter, told Business Insider that the camera's resolution of 384 x 288 also isn't high enough to get a great temperature read. But, he added if the camera resolution is bumped up to something like 640 x 480, such a helmet could prove an efficient way to identify people who need to be taken aside for a secondary screening at hospitals and airports. Temperature reads of people simply walking past, as demonstrated in the demo video, aren't going to be effective because the best place to read a person's temperature is in the right corner of their eye, according to Dr. Wright, so you want to be standing in place while you take the reading.
More than 1,000 helmets are already in use across China, according to KC Wearable, and it says another undisclosed country has ordered hundreds of them. One user on Reddit reported seeing guards sporting the helmets in Milan, Italy.
New normal — Many aspects of our everyday lives are being changed as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people globally. The way we all behave in public, from wearing masks to washing our hands more often, is not just about ourselves but also showing respect to others and making them feel safe. Whether helmet-wearing police officers with thermal cameras will make us feel safer remains to be seen, but we suspect some people in states like Michigan might take exception.
Of course, the best way to protect others right now is by staying at home unless you absolutely must go out. The next best is wearing a mask when you do have to go out. The tricky part is making people in the U.S. adhere to either of those measures.