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Look deep into my thermal imaging camera...

Here’s a near-future scenario that’s looking increasingly plausible in this age of coronavirus. You arrive at the ticket check at a ballpark, ready to watch your favorite team play. Just as you have before, you open your bag for inspection. But this time, instead of walking through a basic metal detector, you stand inside of a hybrid metal detector/millimeter wave machine with a thermal imager and a powerful suite of AI algorithms. In just a few seconds, it scans your heart rate, respiration rate, blood oxygen level and body temperature. It “smells” you too, to determine whether you’re concealing any toxic substances or chemicals like pepper spray, tear gas, gunpowder or even opioids. You either pass the screening and get to enjoy the game, or you’re deemed too risky to enter a crowded environment. In fact, every place where you’ve previously walked through a metal detector—concert halls, airport security, your office building, your house of worship, even your children’s schools—could have enhanced biometric screening soon. And because this screening isn’t diagnosing you, but rather looking for abnormalities against a common baseline, it doesn’t require FDA approval in the U.S

You might argue that in the U.S. or Europe, where privacy is prioritized, pervasive biometric screening will never become commonplace. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there were similar concerns about erecting an intensive security apparatus at airports. Eventually, the desire to get back on planes eventually won out against privacy concerns. Not for nothing, back then we were fearful of travel—not quarantined, indefinitely, inside our homes.

In the midst of our global Covid-19 crisis, we have more questions than answers about how to end quarantines and restart the economy. Data seems to be the missing link between our current situation and our post-pandemic world. We’ll need definitive evidence that a vaccine works, proof that someone has been inoculated, confirmation that someone has antibodies, and demonstration (with a large enough sample size of tests) that someone can’t get re-infected after surviving the virus or getting inoculated against it. Collecting all of that data could take a year or longer, which could lead to a host of downstream negative consequences: disruptions in education and learning, postponed or cancelled sports and arts seasons, cracks in supply chains, steep unemployment and a lingering recession.

One solution is pervasive, continual biometric surveillance. From walk-through screening systems to mobile apps, our near-future will inevitably look very different from the past.

Tyson Foods is using a temperature scanner to screen employees before they enter some of its plants.

5 tech trends related to biometric scanning 

Lots of companies were already working on biometric scanning and identification systems before the pandemic. Amazon was granted a patent technology that enabled its Alexa devices to determine your emotional state and whether you’re sick (if you cough, sniffle or mention you’re not feeling well.) Walmart filed a patent for a biometric shopping cart handle that would let it better determine if you were ill, based on your temperature or heart rate. As Covid-19 cases have spread, there has been increased investment to develop and deploy biometric scanning technologies:

  • Singapore’s state-sanctioned app called TraceTogether establishes connections between people and reported Covid-19 cases.  South Korea is using surveillance camera footage, credit card data and smartphone location information to track movements of infected patients and deliver information to public hotspots. China is requiring citizens to use software that automatically determines whether a person needs to be quarantined based on a color-coded assessment of contagion risk.

  • Tyson Foods deployed a walk-through temperature scanner at three U.S. sites.

  • SymptomSense developed a millimeter wave and metal detector scanning system that claims to screen for Covid-19 symptoms including cough, congestion, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate, fever, and hypoxemia.

  • This month, Apple and Google announced a joint effort that lets Bluetooth chips in their smartphones be used for contact tracing, much like a retailer can track someone’s location in a store. Facebook launched a symptom tracking app with Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological research center. 

Questions about whether biometric scanning data should be stored and accessed later, who should be in charge of maintaining biometric databases, how biometric data should be safeguarded, and who can get later access to biometric data will need to be answered sooner rather than later. The future of biometric scanning intersects with these other longitudinal tech trends we're researching:

  1. Genetic Recognition
  2. Universal Genetic Databases
  3. Data Ownership
  4. Pervasive Surveillance
  5. Algorithmic Scoring
You can find detailed descriptions of these trends in our 2020 Tech Trends Report. This PDF version has a hyperlinked table of contents to help you quickly access each trend.

Preparing your company for a future world in which biometric scanning is the new normal

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is preparing to offer what it calls “guidance” on infrared body temperature scanners. But it doesn’t have the authority to approve or prohibit the use of biometric scanners for entry to buildings. 

Pre-pandemic, there were several stringent privacy laws in effect. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) took effect in January, while the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) required companies to gain consent before collecting and processing someone’s personal data. India was set to implement a similar law. Post-pandemic, “we need a massive surveillance program,” wrote Silicon Valley privacy advocate Maciej Cegłowski on his blog in March. “I am a privacy activist, typing this through gritted teeth, but I am also a human being like you, watching global calamity unfold around us.” 

Expect Covid-19 to pave the way for more biometric scanning, both by public and private sectors. This is a situation where technology is being developed and deployed faster than we can develop norms, standards and rules or to have open public discussions about privacy. Every organization must develop a biometric data governance strategy and ethics policy. For those who work in risk and compliance, 2020 will be the start of a newly complicated landscape. Organizations will need to hire compliance specialists who understand the complexities of using biometric scanning and scoring systems. For those in the public sector, biometric scanning will complicate geoeconomic relationships around the world. And for many communities biometric scanning could exacerbate existing bias in training data and algorithms, which could lead to false positives or negatives. 

Trends Action Matrix

This week's trends should inform your strategy, but be ready to take incremental actions if there's a direct or adjacent escalation.


Near-futures scenarios for the years 2020 - 2022.

Biometric scanning gets us back to work.
Near-term, optimistic: Organizations in charge of tracking systems strike a balance, anonymizing users’ data while successfully restricting the virus’ spread. The process enables widespread suppression of the pandemic, and engenders trust in tracking systems, paving the way for responsible future use.

Biometric scanning erodes our civil liberties.
Near-term, catastrophic: Highly invasive tracking systems are deployed in the name of public health, but the public is split between few willing subjects and many holdouts with privacy concerns. The result is an incomplete (thus far less useful) data set, and users find they’ve given up their civil liberties for nothing.

Biometric scanning erodes privacy and somewhat flattens the curve.
Near-term, neutral: Biometric tracking helps rein in the spread of COVID-19 somewhat, but at the expense of user privacy. The organizations behind the tracking system implore the public to participate, but their reticence prevents the app from having success on par with other nations.

FTI In the News

Harvard Business Review: How to do Strategic Planning Like a Futurist Read here. 

Fast Company: Privacy in 2034: A Corporation Owns Your DNA (and Maybe Your Body) Read here

Marketplace: A futurist on navigating change forced by the pandemic: fight the fear Listen here.

WWD: Life in a Post-Pandemic World Read here.

Inc Magazine: How 5G Will Fundamentally Change Everything You Know About Mobile Computing—From Farms to Phones Read here. 

Vogue: What Do the 2020s Hold? A Futurist, a Trend Forecaster, and an Astrologer Predict Read here

Newly-released interactive edition

We've just re-released a new interactive edition of our annual Tech Trends Report. This PDF features a clickable, searchable table of contents. You can download a fresh copy at the link below.

Many thanks to all of you who participated in our 2020 Trends Report Survey. We made these adjustments because of your feedback. As promised, we've selected 10 people who responded to the survey and sent them printed editions of the report this week. 
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