Can Augmented Reality Be a Weapon Against Ebola?

Joe Rampolla, the long-time commentator on AR legal and social issues, has a new article out today on his ARDirt blog called “Stopping the Spread of Ebola through Augmented Reality.” It’s an interesting piece.

ARDirt_coverart_miniminiHis thesis is that digital eyewear equipped with thermal imaging cameras would offer a much more efficient way to screen travelers for elevated temperatures. This, in turn. would do much more to protect public health than the haphazardly employed touchless thermometers currently being rolled out to select airports.  “If my Augmented Reality thermal imaging glasses detect a person with a heat signature of over 99 degrees Fahrenheit,” Rampolla notes, “a digital overlay alert pop-up could appear in front of my eyes.” Instead of stopping individuals and pointing a thermometer at them, security personnel could simply stroll the halls looking for passersby with elevated heat signatures.

Although there aren’t any commercially available sets of eyewear that come equipped with thermal cameras, Rampolla argues that the technology is already available and easily adaptable to this use. FLIR One, he notes, has an attachable device for the iPhone 5S that can turn it into a thermal imagine device for $349.99.

One issue Joe doesn’t address in this article (although I know it must be on his mind) is privacy. Do individuals walking through an airport or down a sidewalk have a privacy interest in their heat signature?  Would thermal scans of pedestrians invade those rights?

The idea is not as novel as it may sound. Back in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Kyllo v. United States that police had conducted an unconstitutional search of the defendant’s home when they used thermal scanners to scan the heat signature of the defendant’s home from a public street.

Whether Kyllo applies to the technology Rampolla proposes may hinge on the significance of the pedestrians’ choice to take themselves (and thus theri heat signatures) out of their private homes and into the public sphere. This question parallels the conversations currently underway about facial recognition technology. Those who object to the use of facial recognition in public assert a “right to remain anonymous in public.” The trouble is that the law has never actually recognized such a right. The anonymity we usually enjoy in public places has been a function of practical constraints rather than legal safeguards.

The obvious security concerns surrounding mass transit also weight heavily against an assertion of privacy rights here. Travelers are already forced to submit to TSA body scans and random pat-downs. Already, those same security personnel are beginning to use touchless thermometers to verify temperature, and international travelers ar required by law to answer questions about their health truthfully.  It is difficult to see how hands-free scanning of travelers’ temperature is any more invasive, as long as the scan takes place in public.

In any event, those are my additional thoughts on Joe Rampolla’s thesis, but you should visit his blog and read the full article.