Big Brother Watch tells airports to drop thermal surveillance [press release]

Big Brother Watch Team / June 3, 2020

Airports face backlash over thermal surveillance cameras

  • Big Brother Watch urges Heathrow and Bournemouth airports to drop thermal scanners
  • The WHO and expert groups caution against temperature screening
  • Heathrow now considering “facial recognition thermal screening”
  • Campaigners raise concerns that the “experimental” cameras could lead to holiday-makers being wrongly sent home and arrivals forced into quarantine

Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has urged airports to stop using thermal imaging 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.

However, Big Brother Watch has warned that thermal imaging cameras “cannot detect fevers” and may breach data protection and privacy rights.

Heathrow Airport’s website states that “a subsequent phase” of their use of thermal surveillance may involve “escalations to healthcare professionals”1 Big Brother Watch has warned that this could lead to “significant automated decisions based on experimental surveillance” and may breach data protection laws.

The campaigners say that the “experimental” scans 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”2 in a move that is likely to be controversial. Big Brother Watch outlined the plans in their monthly Emergency Powers and Civil Liberties report and described the plans as “unacceptable and highly likely to be unlawful.”

Heathrow Airport’s thermal cameras use infrared technology to estimate passenger’s skin temperate 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’”.”3

Experts have warned that temperature screening has limited efficacy in relation to Covid-19 due to the incubation period and proportion of asymptomatic infections. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently advised that “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 positive [sic]”.4

Epidemiologists from the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases (CMMID) nCoV working group cautioned that “exit or entry screening at airports for initial symptoms, via thermal scanners or similar, is unlikely to prevent passage of infected travellers into new countries or regions.”5

Thermal imaging is being applied as a novel surveillance method that has had little success 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.6 During the SARS epidemic, 763,082 passengers were screened by thermal scanners in Toronto and Vancouver airports, but failed to identify a single case.7

Heathrow Airport has said it believes thermal screening will provide, “passenger confidence”8 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”.9

However, Big Brother Watch struck back at the claims, writing in a letter to the airports that ““In a pandemic, misplaced confidence deriving from surveillance marketing rather than scientific evidence endangers public health.”

Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, said:

“Thermal cameras are 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. The airports are simply 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 do not 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.”


End notes

1 Coronavirus update, Temperature screening trials FAQ – Heathrow: (accessed 23 May 2020)

2 Heathrow COVID-19 detection trials – Heathrow Airport, 6 May 2020:

3 Ibid.

4 Key considerations for repatriation and quarantine of travellers in relation to the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV – WHO, 11 February 2020:

5 Quilty Billy J, Clifford Sam, CMMID nCoV working group2, Flasche Stefan, Eggo Rosalind M. Effectiveness of airport screening at detecting travellers infected with novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Euro Surveill. 2020;25(5):pii=2000080.

6 Priest PC, Duncan AR, Jennings LC, Baker MG (2011) Thermal Image Scanning for Influenza Border Screening: Results of an Airport Screening Study. PLoS ONE 6(1): e14490.

7 St John, R. K., King, A., de Jong, D., Bodie-Collins, M., Squires, S. G., & Tam, T. W. (2005). Border screening for SARS. Emerging infectious diseases, 11(1), 6–10.

8 Heathrow COVID-19 detection trials – Heathrow Airport, 6 May 2020:

9 SCC helping businesses bounce back from COVID-19 crisis with Thermal Fever Detection technology – SCC, 30 April 2020: