Big Brother Watch tells airports to drop thermal surveillance

Big Brother Watch Team / June 3, 2020

We’ve written to Heathrow airport and Bournemouth airport to urge them to stop using thermal surveillance cameras.

Thermal scanners are currently being trialled at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 immigration hall and Bournemouth Airport, and claim to detect if a person has a fever a key symptom of coronavirus.

They’re also being used by some employers. We know Amazon UK is using thermal surveillance on staff, so we’ve written to them too.

You can read the letters here.

Thermal imaging cameras cannot detect fevers and we think they’re likely to breach data protection and privacy rights.

This is a lurch towards biosurveillance and pervasive health monitoring that is more likely to benefit the surveillance industry than to provide any benefit to public health.

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. We believe the airports are using them for security theatre in attempt to get business going again.

It’s important that thermal checkpoints are voluntary and better still that their use is halted altogether. We don’t want to live in a surveillance environment where companies monitor us increasingly ‘under the skin’, measuring our bodies and collecting health data for no good reason other than corporate profits.

Facial recognition, profiling and thermal screening

Heathrow Airport’s website states that “a subsequent phase” of their use of thermal surveillance may involve “escalations to healthcare professionals.” This could lead to significant automated decisions based on experimental surveillance. It could affect quarantine restrictions on people arriving into the UK and disrupt plans for holiday-makers trying to leave the UK as the lockdown is eased.

Heathrow Airport said it is also considering a further rollout of “facial recognition thermal screening technology”. We think that’s unacceptable and highly likely to be unlawful.

Heathrow Airport’s thermal cameras use infrared technology to estimate passengers’ skin temperature and also log their estimated age group, gender, movement speed, clothing and “other generic information which may cause a person to have an elevated temperature such as ‘passenger was carrying a cup of tea’.”

Security theatre

Thermal imaging is being applied as a novel surveillance method that is completely unproven in public health contexts. During a seasonal flu epidemic, a New Zealand study found airport thermal scanners were “not much better than chance” at identifying infected travellers. During the SARS epidemic, 763,082 passengers were screened by thermal scanners in Toronto and Vancouver airports, but failed to identify a single case. The World Health Organisation has recently urged caution against the use of temperature screening.

Heathrow Airport has said it believes thermal screening will provide, “passenger confidence” whilst Bournemouth Airport’s thermal scanner provider SCC claims the tech could increase profits by “removing the requirement to undersell occupancy to enable social distancing on flights”.

However, in a pandemic, misplaced confidence deriving from surveillance marketing rather than scientific evidence endangers public health.

Is your employer using thermal surveillance? Tell us know in confidence: