Pan­demic stokes a du­bi­ous run on ther­mal scan­ners

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY DREW HAR­WELL

As they scram­bled last month to find a way to pin­point in­fec­tions from the novel coro­n­avirus, of­fi­cials in Ge­or­gia’s Gwin­nett County sought help from an un­usual source: an Illi­nois-based seller of red-light traf­fic cam­eras.

RedSpeed USA had be­gun ad­ver­tis­ing a “fever de­tec­tor” that it de­scribed as fast and ac­cu­rate, us­ing “ground-break­ing tech­nol­ogy [to] iden­tify symp­toms of ill­ness.” The county of nearly a mil­lion peo­ple in the At­lanta sub­urbs, where more than 2,500 have con­firmed in­fec­tions and more than 100 have died, quickly ap­proved an emer­gency pur­chase of four scan­ners to be in­stalled in­side county court and of­fice build­ings.

“This may be a pre­view of how we ‘re­turn to nor­mal,’ ” the county ad­min­is­tra­tor wrote in in­ter­nal emails ob­tained by Columbia Univer­sity’s Brown In­sti­tute for Me­dia In­no­va­tion and re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Amid the rush, the county had paid a heavy pre­mium: RedSpeed’s setup, at roughly $30,000 a scan­ner, cost far more than sim­i­lar sys­tems sold by es­tab­lished com­peti­tors — in­clud­ing the in­dus­try leader, FLIR Sys­tems, where scan­ners range from $5,000 to $15,000.

In­dus­try ex­perts ac­tively dis­suade buy­ers from us­ing the cam­eras as “fever de­tec­tors,” be­cause they aren’t de­signed for med­i­cal use. RedSpeed’s scan­ners, tech­ni­cal doc­u­ments show, had also been made by Zhe­jiang Dahua Tech­nol­ogy, a Chi­nese sur­veil­lance-cam­era com­pany banned by Congress in 2018 from sell­ing to fed­eral agen­cies, though that pro­hi­bi­tion did not

to lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Com­pa­nies and com­mu­ni­ties ea­ger to get back to work have touched off a na­tion­wide gold rush for ther­mal scan­ners, which mea­sure the heat on a per­son’s skin and can be used to es­ti­mate whether some­one is fever­ish — a po­ten­tial sign of the dis­ease caused by the virus, covid-19.

But in­dus­try veter­ans say the frenzy also is stir­ring up con­fu­sion and lead­ing some small busi­nesses and public of­fi­cials to spend heav­ily on cam­eras with­out un­der­stand­ing their lim­i­ta­tions — namely, that they’re not very good at ac­tu­ally de­tect­ing in­fec­tions.

While the sys­tems can sense el­e­vated skin tem­per­a­tures, they aren’t pre­cise enough to tell whether some­one has a fever or some­thing else: The warmth of a per­son’s skin is of­ten quite dif­fer­ent from their core body heat. Peo­ple with heav­ier builds, health con­di­tions or hot flashes can trig­ger the sys­tem’s alarms; so, too, can any­one just walk­ing in from a hot car or park­ing lot.

Many peo­ple with covid-19 in­fec­tions haven’t ac­tu­ally had fevers: The head of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion said last month that as many as 25 per­cent of in­fected peo­ple don’t show any symp­toms at all. The virus’s stealthy abil­ity to not give it­self away while it spreads led univer­sity re­searchers in Fe­bru­ary to es­ti­mate that fever scans and sim­i­lar screen­ing tech­niques would over­look more than half of the in­fected.

Those flaws haven’t stopped com­pa­nies with names such as Athena Se­cu­rity and Feevr from pitch­ing high-tech “fever de­tec­tion” sys­tems they say could help make the dif­fer­ence be­tween a safe work­place and a dan­ger­ous out­break.

In a tech­ni­cal pre­sen­ta­tion sent to Gwin­nett County, RedSpeed USA said its sys­tem had been in­stalled at emer­gency-op­er­a­tions cen­ters and law en­force­ment of­fices in South Florida, that the tech­nol­ogy had been “es­sen­tial to suc­cess­fully con­tain­ing the out­break in China” and that it could pro­vide “con­fi­dence that all is be­ing done for com­mu­nity well­be­ing.”

An of­fi­cial at RedSpeed USA, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal mat­ters, said the deal was ap­proved by county lead­ers and ac­cu­rately re­flected the sys­tem’s pur­chas­ing, de­liv­ery, in­stal­la­tion, train­ing and sup­port costs. Gwin­nett of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment.

An ex­ec­u­tive at Feevr’s par­ent com­pany, X.Labs, said in a state­ment that its de­vice is “de­signed to be used as a screen­ing de­vice, not a med­i­cal de­vice” and “rep­re­sents a front line proac­tive and pre­cau­tion­ary step . . . which when com­bined with ad­di­tional mea­sures as dic­tated by med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als can help pre­vent the spread of an in­fec­tious dis­ease.” Athena of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The world’s largest maker of such equip­ment, Ore­gon-based FLIR Sys­tems, strongly cau­tions buy­ers to un­der­stand how the sys­tems are meant to be used. The com­pany has posted on­line dis­claimers that its cam­eras are not “for med­i­cal pur­poses” and can’t be used “to di­ag­nose the coro­n­avirus” or “find in­di­vid­u­als ex­pe­ri­enc­ing coro­n­avirus symp­toms.”

The de­vices were once bought al­most ex­clu­sively by mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties and in­dus­trial gi­ants, but an in­flux of small busi­nesses, public venues and other “non­tra­di­tional cus­tomers” has fu­eled a surge in de­mand, FLIR’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Jim Cannon said in an in­ter­view.

FLIR sold more than $100 mil­lion worth of scan­ners that can screen for el­e­vated skin tem­per­a­tures in the first three months of this year, with sales go­ing ei­ther di­rectly to busi­nesses or to re­sellers who pack­age them un­der their own brand. But Cannon said he fears the new wave of in­ter­est could lead to com­pa­nies mis­us­ing the scan­ners or look­ing for med­i­cal in­sights they weren’t built to pro­vide.

“We do have con­cerns that we see a lot of folks pop­ping up in the mar­ket­place mak­ing claims that, frankly, the sci­ence can’t sup­port,” he said. “You can’t just take any ther­mal cam­era and point it at some­one and get an ef­fec­tive screen­ing tool for their sur­face tem­per­a­ture with­out tremen­dous amounts of false alarm­ing . . . . There are a lot of folks that have popped up overnight that we think are mar­ket­ing so­lu­tions that don’t do what they’re in­tended to do.”

Ther­mal cam­eras have tra­di­tion­ally been used for de­fense and se­cu­rity pur­poses, not med­i­cal screen­ing: In­stalled for years at bor­der cross­ings, ports and mil­i­tary bases, they can sense when peo­ple or ve­hi­cles are apap­ply even in hazy weather or af­ter night­fall.

The cam­eras have been used to speed up the tem­per­a­ture-tak­ing process for se­cu­rity staff who might oth­er­wise have to rely only on no-con­tact ther­mome­ters, tak­ing read­ings one fore­head at a time. Scan­ners were in­stalled across air­ports in Asia dur­ing the SARS out­break in 2003 to help mon­i­tor for high tem­per­a­tures among mov­ing crowds, but the move drew crit­i­cism from some health re­searchers over the roll­out’s “un­proven ef­fi­cacy.”

While they are great at sens­ing the gen­eral pres­ence of a warm body, ther­mal scan­ners are far less pre­cise at as­sess­ing tem­per­a­ture for clin­i­cal use. Some sys­tems ad­ver­tised as “fever de­tec­tion” de­vices, the sur­veil­lance-in­dus­try re­search site IPVM found, have an ac­cu­racy range of 3 de­grees — the dif­fer­ence be­tween a fever­ish per­son and some­one who’s per­fectly well.

Be­cause of that, FLIR is care­ful to say its cam­eras only can pick up “el­e­vated skin tem­per­a­tures,” not de­tect fevers or di­ag­nose in­fec­tions, and urges cus­tomers to use sec­ondary screen­ings with more pre­cise ther­mome­ters to bet­ter as­sess their clients and per­son­nel.

Even with those lim­i­ta­tions, the sys­tems still are re­garded as one of the few ways to quickly de­tect in­fec­tion risk. Some com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments are rac­ing to in­stall the scan­ners to ar­gue they can re­open safely, re­turn to work or re­sume public life.

Gen­eral Mo­tors, Tyson Foods and other ma­jor em­ploy­ers have in­stalled tem­per­a­ture scan­ners for their work­ers. Fron­tier Air­lines next month will be­gin scan­ning the tem­per­a­tures of ev­ery trav­eler board­ing a plane.

In Florida’s Palm Beach County, Dahua ther­mal cam­eras sold by RedSpeed and in­stalled last month scan ev­ery­one who en­ters the county jail and court­house, while a deputy with a lap­top re­views peo­ple’s tem­per­a­tures from nearby. Sev­eral court­house vis­i­tors in the past few weeks have been turned away at the door.

“It doesn’t mean they’ve got covid . . . but we’re not go­ing to take that chance,” Ric Brad­shaw, the county’s sher­iff, told The Post. “I don’t think all this crazi­ness is go­ing to go away that soon.”

Some in­dus­try ex­perts worry that com­pa­nies and public of­fi­cials us­ing the tech­nol­ogy for the first time are rush­ing back to work with a false sense of se­cu­rity. Ryan Bar­nett, the owner of Vet­ted Se­cu­rity So­lu­tions, which has in­stalled the scan­ners and other sur­veil­lance sys­tems for law en­force­ment across the South, said he has seen a rise in com­pa­nies mar­ket­ing “fever de­tec­tion” sys­tems that can rou­tinely give false read­ings or are not ac­cu­rate enough for that use.

“The sys­tem isn’t magic. It’s just read­ing ex­ter­nal tem­per­a­tures,” he said. “You don’t want to be pub­licly sham­ing some­body or draw­ing neg­a­tive at­ten­tion to some­body be­cause their tem­per­a­ture might be too high.”

The pan­demic has led fed­eral of­fi­cials to re­vise es­tab­lished rules around work­place and hir­ing pro­tec­tions, in­clud­ing by al­low­ing em­ploy­ers to take work­ers’ tem­per­a­tures when­ever they deem nec­es­sary and with­draw job of­fers to work­ers with con­firmed in­fec­tions. Ty­ing peo­ple’s pay­checks to their tem­per­a­ture has also led some work­ers to pur­sue dan­ger­ous short­cuts: At a Tyson Foods meat­pack­ing plant in Iowa where ther­mal scan­ners now check work­ers for fevers, the New York Times re­ported this month, one worker who died had taken Tylenol to re­duce her tem­per­a­ture for fear she’d be blocked from com­ing to work.

Some in­dus­try veter­ans also fear com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments could over­spend on ther­mal scan­ners and over­look cheaper meth­ods, such as hand­held ther­mome­ters, as they race to ad­dress public-health con­cerns. Some com­pa­nies are now of­fer­ing more so­phis­ti­cated sys­tems that can use face-de­tec­tion soft­ware to take the tem­per­a­ture of a per­son’s tear ducts — typ­i­cally the most ac­cu­rate in­di­ca­tor of their core body heat.

A setup of com­po­nents nearly iden­ti­cal to what RedSpeed sold Gwin­nett can be bought on­line for roughly half of RedSpeed’s $30,000-a-sys­tem to­tal bill. But the RedSpeed of­fi­cial de­fended its sys­tem as com­pa­ra­ble to ri­val hard­ware and sold at a fair cost, say­ing the com­pany had moved quickly to de­liver and in­stall the sys­tems in a time of high de­mand.

Tech­ni­cal doc­u­ments show the cam­eras in­stalled by RedSpeed USA were man­u­fac­tured by Zhe­jiang Dahua Tech­nol­ogy, which Congress has banned from fed­eral pro­cure­ment, cit­ing na­tion­alse­cu­rity con­cerns. Re­searchers at the Mary­land-based cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm ReFirm Labs said in 2017 that they had dis­cov­ered a hid­den “back door” in Dahua cam­eras that had been used to send data se­cretly to a Chi­nese net­work.

The Com­merce Depart­ment last year also added the com­pany to its “en­tity list,” say­ing Dahua was part of a group of Chi­nese tech firms “im­pli­cated in hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and abuses” as part of the coun­try’s “cam­paign of re­pres­sion, mass ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion and high-tech­nol­ogy sur­veil­lance” of Mus­lim mi­nor­ity groups in the Chi­nese region of Xin­jiang.

The black­list pro­hibits fed­eral gov­ern­ment trans­ac­tions but does not af­fect com­pany or lo­cal­go­v­ern­ment deals. The RedSpeed of­fi­cial said the Dahua scan­ners do not con­nect to the In­ter­net and were se­lected for their price, avail­abil­ity and ac­cu­racy.

But deals such as RedSpeed’s have raised alarms among law­mak­ers crit­i­cal of Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy. Sen. Marco Ru­bio (R-Fla.) said in a state­ment re­cently that no com­pany or lo­cal gov­ern­ment “should trust any equip­ment from Dahua” and that “in­stalling Dahua equip­ment rep­re­sents a mas­sive se­cu­rity risk . . . for the na­tion as a whole.”

Dahua did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. The com­pany is a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional pro­ducer of se­cu­rity cam­eras and has con­tested its ad­di­tion to the fed­eral black­list, say­ing the de­ci­sion lacks “any fac­tual ba­sis.”

Ques­tions over Chi­nese pro­duc­tion could be­come a stick­ing point as ther­mal-scan­ner sales ramp up. FLIR, the big­gest Amer­i­can seller, said it has seen a “dra­matic and rapid in­crease in de­mand” and has a record back­log of roughly $859 mil­lion in pend­ing de­liv­er­ies.

Reuters last month re­ported that Ama­zon had bought hun­dreds of Dahua cam­eras to scan work­ers’ tem­per­a­tures. Ama­zon would not con­firm the Dahua pur­chase but said it uses sys­tems from a va­ri­ety of man­u­fac­tur­ers and all of the hard­ware fol­lows lo­cal and fed­eral law. (Ama­zon chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Many of the ther­mal scan­ners com­ing on­line have not been ap­proved for med­i­cal use by the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, but the agency said last month it would not ob­ject to their ex­panded use amid the pan­demic.

The rush of busi­ness for ther­mal scan­ners is “sort of like toi­let pa­per,” said Peter Ar­ment, a se­nior re­search an­a­lyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. who stud­ies de­fense tech­nol­ogy. “And you’re go­ing to see more of this. De­mand for tem­per­a­ture scan­ners is as red-hot as it’s go­ing to be. We have no modern medicine an­swer yet.”

“The sys­tem isn’t magic. It’s just read­ing ex­ter­nal tem­per­a­tures.” Ryan Bar­nett, owner of Vet­ted Se­cu­rity So­lu­tions


Com­pa­nies and com­mu­ni­ties ea­ger to re­turn to work have rushed to buy ther­mal scan­ners, some­times over-mar­keted as a safety mea­sure.

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