March is Healthcare Biometrics Month at FindBiometrics, during which we’ll deliver in-depth features, expert analysis, insightful dialogue on our ID Talk podcast, and more. We’ve turned our focus to the exciting space of healthcare biometrics in the past, but this year the area is more salient than ever, for reasons that are, unfortunately, all too obvious to readers around the world. So we’re going to kick things off by looking squarely at the elephant in the room, and examining how biometrics and related technologies are helping organizations around the world to adapt to – and mitigate – the spread of COVID-19.
One of the most direct ways in which biometrics are being used to fight the virus is in the use of wearable devices to look for signs of infection. Though it may seem far-fetched, the idea that wearable devices equipped with biometric sensors could detect possible COVID-19 infection seems to have some real merit, and researchers were relatively quick to explore the idea after the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. As early as April, healthcare workers in Silicon Valley were wearing biometric smart rings to see if they could detect the early signs of infection, and academic researchers were getting curious about the prospect too.
Before long, the military got involved, launching a study in June that would look at whether biometric smart rings and even a Garmin fitness-tracking smart watch could detect the the signs of illness up to 48 hours before soldiers even felt symptoms. Results from such studies have been promising enough that the US Army awarded a major contract to FitBit for COVID-detecting wearable technology in November, as part of an advancing research program.
COVID-detecting wearable technology is still far from mainstream, of course. But it offers a striking illustration of how biometrics could have a profound impact in our efforts to fight the virus, and potentially save lives in a very direct and tangible way.
Verifying Immunity Credentials
Another important area in which biometric technology is starting to play a role in the fight against COVID-19 is the rise of immunity credentials. Also referred to as “immunity passports”, such credentials would theoretically be used by individuals to prove that they aren’t infected with the virus in order to access various services. It’s a sometimes controversial idea, and it isn’t yet clear how big a role such credentials will play as more parts of the global economy reopen, but immunity credentials could end up being one important strand in the effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.
To function effectively, immunity credentials need to be reliably tied to the individuals presenting them. This is where biometrics come into play. Before the end of spring last year, major names like CLEAR and Onfido had already announced the development of immunity credentials that use selfie-based facial recognition to verify the identities of users, who would be able to present authorities with mobile-based confirmation of negative test results.
More recent solutions, like TECH5’s Proof of Vaccination credential and World Health Access’s VAX Passbooks and Passcards, have emphasized user privacy, leveraging biometrics to ensure that an end user’s vaccination status can be confirmed without the need to share additional personal information. Notably, the latter uses fingerprint biometrics, demonstrating that the highly popular selfie-based approach isn’t the only viable option for immunity credential confirmation.
Virus-detecting wearables and biometric immunity passports are two of the most prominent new applications of biometrics in the fight against COVID, but there’s a range of other approaches being taken to help integrate COVID screening into real-world environments.
For example, a partnership between TensorMark, Vuzix, and University Hospitals last year sought to enable the real-time sharing of COVID-19 test results through various devices, including face-scanning smart glasses. Another collaborative effort, meanwhile, combined Unisys’s biometric identity management technology with Inspire Health Alliance’s COVID-19 testing machines to protect sensitive data. And IDEMIA and New Zealand’s Orbis Diagnostics recently teamed up on a travel screening solution that would enable rapid COVID-19 testing during travel screening.
All of the above help to illustrate the kind of innovation that the biometrics industry can offer in the broader effort to protect people from the threat of COVID-19. And while the virus may be the most pressing concern at present, there’s plenty more to say about how biometric technology is making an impact in other ways in the field of healthcare. Stay tuned to FindBiometrics as we bring further insight on this topic as Healthcare Biometrics Month continues in the weeks to come, culminating in an expert webinar for which registration is now open.
March 4, 2021 – by Alex Perala