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Biometrics: Sensing a Healthy Society

Biometric sensors can be a powerful tool to protect public health – but to be effective, we must ensure privacy and trust.

By Emily Acton, Michael Rander | 8 min read

The global COVID-19 pandemic is changing how we exist in the world by forcing us to rethink our relationship to public and private spaces. It is a harbinger, too, of public health crises to come, whether these be flareups of known contagions, new emergent diseases, or the spread of pathogens in the warming climate. What we learn and choose to do now to maintain public health – and our own – will have enormous impacts on how we live and interact with the world.


Given the speed with which pandemics can spread within populations and across geographies, we will need solutions that encompass widespread, real-time monitoring of health data and symptoms, and provide pathways, like alerts, that allow us to use this information effectively and quickly. Public health data that is collected ethically while protecting individual privacy can be used to manage future outbreaks as well as create devices and applications to help us monitor disease, deliver treatment, and improve population health. Biometric trackers, which can gather info on physical states, promise to do just that. There are two types in this context: those unique to an individual, like wearables, and those used in shared spaces that can capture and assess health indicators for groups. Effective biometric solutions offer individual health alerts, help public health officials track and monitor outbreaks, and help limit the spread of harmful germs to help us manage our collective physical, mental, and economic health. But there are also limits and concerns.


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Am I healthy?

Devices that capture biometric information from individuals are already in use to help individuals identify whether they are becoming ill or are at risk. Wearables like rings, watches, and adhesive sensors have the advantage of being on or near the body, collecting close to real-time data. Many devices also can send location signals, and so can aid contact tracing.


Some initial forays into using personal biometrics for disease detection have involved repurposing existing consumer devices. One of the many research collaborations to investigate devices for COVID-19 detection is sponsored by Oura Health. The Finnish company’s Oura Rings were originally designed as sleep trackers. Now researchers are testing the rings to see whether they can also track COVID-19 symptoms. The company is working with scientists at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and University of California San Francisco, amongst other universities and research institutions. For these studies, medical professionals along with people in the general U.S. population are wearing the rings to track their temperature as well as respiratory and heart rates. The data will be used to develop an algorithm that can predict symptoms and infection. Early results seem to show that the platform can predict an infection three days before symptoms appear, with 90% accuracy.


Meanwhile, Epicore Biosystems is exploring applications for its adhesive skin patch, which was developed for athletes. The single-use patches collect sweat to assess fatigue. For COVID-19 sufferers, it may be able to measures cytokines – proteins produced by the immune system that are also found in sweat. So-called “cytokine storms,” when a large amount of cytokines are released, have been linked to complications in COVID-19 patients including multiple organ failure.


Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab developed an adhesive patch to treat stroke patients that sits at the base of the throat and measures breathing, coughing, and heart rate. Researchers added temperature and blood oxygen measurements for COVID-19 detection. The collected data can be uploaded to the cloud by removing the patch and placing it on a wireless charger. The information is then analyzed by an artificial intelligence (AI) platform which looks for COVID-19 indicators, providing continuous monitoring of health indicators to medical professionals.


Personal biometric trackers have the potential to provide symptom information before an individual even notices a problem, allowing for better decisions about having contact with others, and prompting people to quickly get medical attention.




Are we healthy?

While personal biometric sensors can help individuals make decisions to seek care and take steps to avoid infecting others, embedding ambient biometric sensors in office buildings, gyms, malls, shops, theaters, stadiums, public transportation, and other public spaces could help instill confidence in the safety of those locations by spotting people who may not be aware that they’re potential risks.


Singapore tapped local company Kronikare to adapt its wound scanning device into a mass temperature reader. The iThermo uses an AI application to scan temperatures in public using smartphones with laser and 3D thermal cameras. People don’t have to line up to have their temperature read, and the person doing the scanning doesn’t have to get close to possibly infected strangers.


Another option that’s highly scalable and thereby a potential option for large groups like office and retail workers is using voice to assess health. Sonde Health has released a smartphone app called Sonde One which uses a six second recording of a person’s voice to detect respiratory problems. So far, according to the company, the app has a 70% accuracy rate. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are also working on a similar idea. Their COVID-19 Voice Detector matches the vocal sounds with recordings collected from COVID-19 patients, providing a likelihood of infection score.


Meanwhile, architects and interior designers have begun to rethink how existing office space is configured in anticipation of persistent social distancing. Possibilities include smart flooring that creates visual demarcations for safe pathways based on real-time biometric data, smart elevators that can be likewise programmed to limit riders, and apps that aid contact tracing by tracking who employees come into contact with while in the office.


Public applications for biometrics are one way of helping us maintain social and work lives that are minimally disrupted during pandemics while improving public testing and identifying people needing treatment.




Designing safer spaces

But with the likelihood that we will have rolling lockdowns as pandemics come and go, interior designers and architects are thinking of how to create spaces that will provide safety and comfort where we live, work, and socialize. They’re imagining a fundamental change in how environments are designed to create flexible and responsive spaces that can quickly be adapted to pandemic situations.


At the University of Southern California School of Architecture, Project Héroe has created a detailed model for installing emergency medical infrastructure quickly. The plan includes care facilities and housing for care professionals, and it details the logistics involved with launching a massive health response in only a week.


Concepts like this emphasize the importance of a collaborative, cross-discipline approach to architecture when designing for socio-economic, health, and environmental problems. Embedding biometrics in built environments could inform structural design and usage patterns, provide health alerts, and monitor air quality and virus transmission.


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Science and privacy first

None of the above scenarios can succeed unless backed by independent, scientifically-sound research along with transparency about how the technology works and how it is being used.


Given the reluctance, or outright refusal, to physically distance or wear masks among some populations, we can expect resistance to being tracked.


A wearable like a ring or a bracelet might be acceptable and more likely to be used if it’s unobtrusive, comes with stringent privacy controls, and medical or public health professionals can make a convincing case for using it. In other words, people have to agree to use any device that collects personal data; it can’t be forced upon them.


Expect an increase in the application of biometrics to trigger a push for privacy from researchers, individuals, and some governments. There will need to be strict protocols in place for what is monitored, where the monitoring occurs, who will be allowed to access the results, and who grants permissions. We will also need clear parameters for how data are used, anonymized, stored, and discarded. In the United States, Senate lawmakers introduced the “Exposure Notification Privacy Act” in response to the coronavirus pandemic; it means to curb the types and amount of data that can be collected to track infections.


The COVID-19 pandemic could usher in a period of robust scientific and cross-disciplinary collaboration that encompasses health, design, public policy, and more. Experts in interrelated fields have an opportunity to investigate and create new ways of thinking about health data, as well as how to capture and use it.  

If biometric applications can provide sufficient accuracy and privacy, they can be applied to many contexts to improve personal and collective health. That could include providing staff and residents of long-term care homes with excellent predictive and preventative diagnoses. Or keeping travelers safe in airports and aircraft.


But if there’s too much fragmentation of systems and data, if data is not treated correctly, and if citizens do not have trust in whomever is leading these initiatives, then we’ll not only have wasted people’s tolerance and good will in our efforts to contain COVID-19, we will thwart opportunities to use biometrics to address other public health threats.


As the incidence of pandemics and our experience with them changes, we will need technology that can evolve along with us to ensure our health and safety. Data from biometric tracking will be essential to our ability to build effective solutions, including the adaptive environments we will need. Biometrics will therefore be crucial in allowing us to avoid extended social isolation periods – making sure we can continue to live human, social lives.

Meet the Authors

Emily Acton
Analyst and Editor | SAP Insights research center

Michael Rander
Senior Director and Head of Operations | SAP Insights research center

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