When the world was busy celebrating year 2020’s New Year Eve, a mysterious sequence of events was unfolding in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in China. The country’s health officials had reported as much as 41 cases of mysterious pneumonia by 31st December 2019, which had inexplicably emerged in the city. These patients were found to have links with a wet market located in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, which brought up the theories about the infection being zoonosis. Zoonosis is the term used for the transfer of infection causing agents (such as bacteria, virus, parasites, etc.) from animals to humans.
At the time of writing this article, the infection had spread across the planet infecting more than 2 million people and leaving more than 130,000 dead.
In the wake of the situation, healthcare settings around the world are working on a war footing. Several precautions have been prescribed to avoid infection such as staying home, washing hands frequently and to avoid touching shared surfaces at public places.
In organizations around the world, people use biometric scanners for attendance, access control, time tracking and several other applications. These devices may be shared by many individuals. In this article, we will have a closer look at the possibility of coronavirus infection with biometric scanners, countries that have already stopped using them as a precautionary measure and the scope of touch-less biometric modalities such as face and iris recognition to mitigate infection risks.
Can coronavirus spread via a biometric scanner?
Biometric scanners such as fingerprint and palm print attendance and access control systems are generally shared by many, and may become a medium to spread the infection. An infected individual may use the device and leave the infectious virus on its surface, which can be carried by other people using the scanner. That is also why washing hands and not touching the face is advised repetitively by the WHO (World Health Organization).
Coronavirus does not show any symptoms immediately. Infected individuals may look visibly healthy without any symptoms of the illness for several days. Yet, these asymptotic individuals can spread the infection unknowingly and the cycle goes on. This is why governments have been pushing approaches like isolation and quarantine until symptoms start showing up in case of an infection.
However, infected individuals can be infectious and you may catch the virus by touching shared surfaces such as biometric scanners. Some countries around the world have urged people to stop using these devices. However, it is not just biometric scanners that may contribute to spread the infection. All shared surfaces touch by others, such as door handles, knobs, subway polls, etc. may get contaminated during such outbreaks. An infectious microbe can reside on these surfaces and infect others.
How long can coronavirus survive on biometric scanners?
Since touching the shared surfaces can contribute in spreading the infection, experts around the world have conducted studies on the survivability of coronavirus on different surfaces.
Studies and lab tests tell that the behaviour and survivability of the coronavirus hugely depend on the surface type and environmental conditions. In a favourable environment,coronavirus can survive for days. A study published on The Lancet concluded that the coronavirus can be more stable on shiny surfaces (such as glass) rather than the porous planes (such as paper). Its lifespan is dependent on the surface type and varies between three hours to three days and even longer if conditions are highly favourable.
According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can survive up to three hours in the air. Coronavirus gets airborne with droplets through coughing and sneezing.
Sensor surface of biometric devices such as fingerprint or palm print scanners, are made of glass. The study says that on a glass surface, the virus can survive up to 4 days (at 21 to 23 degree celsius and 40% relative humidity). It becomes unstable at higher temperatures. It makes scanner surfaces highly susceptible to harbour the virus particles and spread infection. This is why some countries have stopped using biometric scanners to curb the spread of coronavirus infection.
Countries that have stopped using biometrics to avoid coronavirus spread
Avoid touching surfaces that are shared by many is one of the precautionary measures in the fight against coronavirus and Covid 19. Acknowledging that, some countries have urged people to stop using biometric scanners that require people to touch them.
The United States
Covid 19 has impacted the United States in the ways it would have never imagined. The country underestimated the risk and now with more than 560 thousand confirmed cases and more than 22,000 deaths, it is among the top hotspots of the disease. Despite one of the best healthcare systems around the world, resources have fallen short before the outbreak.
The government is asking people to stay home and take precautions. Many government and private outfits have stopped using biometric scanners. According to a report published in the New York Post, the NYPD has asked employees to stop using the fingerprint based security protocol for entry in to its New York HQ, as an effort to contain the spread of the disease.
In another report from the same publication, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has also asked its employees to stop using fingerprint based time clocks. The similar efforts have taken place throughout the country in both in private as well as government organizations to avoid the spread of the virus.
When coronavirus cases started to rise in the country, the government was quick to respond and urged employees to stop using fingerprint time and attendance systems across its departments and offices throughout the nation.
The decision was one of many countermeasures taken by the government of India to curb the spread of coronavirus and Covid 19. Later, the government locked down the entire country in an unprecedented decision, making it the world’s biggest lockdown.
On March 13, 2020, France 24 reported referring SANA, a Syrian news agency that the Syrian government had suspended the use of fingerprint scanners for public employees. The government had also cut civil servant staffing by 60 percent and slashed working hours as other countermeasures against the spread of the Covid 19 disease.
According to a report published on the Egyptian State Information Service website, some government and judicial institutions of the country has suspended the use of fingerprint based biometric attendance systems, in order to curb the spread of coronavirus (Covid 19). The report also mentioned that some national and privates banks are also considering replacing fingerprint recognition systems with biometric cards.
Regardless of the governments’ stance over the matter, many organizations around the world have urged their employees to stop using biometrics based time and attendance and similar applications that require them to touch these shared devices.This small efforts around the world have been helping people to stay safe and break the cycle of coronavirus infection.
Can biometric scanners contaminate more than other surfaces?
In previous sections, we discussed that biometrics scanners such as fingerprint, palm print recognition systems that require people to touch the scanner can easily get contaminated. Germs of these surfaces can survive for days if the environmental conditions are favourable. They can become a medium to spread the infection by transferring bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc. from one person to another.
However, biometric scanners do not contaminate more than any other shared surface, such as door handle or knob, which may also be touched by many.
The university conducted this study in order to examine if increasing usage of biometric scanners also increases the risk of infection among its users.
Biometrics scanners and coronavirus: what are the alternatives?
Since scientific studies have proved that coronavirus can survive for days on different surfaces, it makes biometric scanners susceptible to spread the infection. So what can be the solution?
Following your local government or WHO advisory on coronavirus is a good way to start. If you must touch a shared surface, then not touching the face until you wash your hands with soap and water will be a good idea. Biometric scanners are no different than other shared surfaces, which may be contaminated and get you infected. Another, more permanent way is to use a non-contact biometric recognition method such as face recognition, iris recognition, etc.
Face recognition has made a tremendous progress in the recent years. From Security and surveillance to time and attendance, it is being used in a wide variety of applications. Face recognition makes use of facial geometry to establish identity of an individual, which can later be verified with a face scan. Face recognition is a completely non-contact method of biometric recognition. It just requires the subject to be in front of the recognition system without the need of touching it. Face recognition based time and attendance systems are already there in the market.
Despite unprecedented growth of biometric facial recognition, it still has captured only a fraction of market share. Concerns over privacy and security have kept mass appeal at bay. However, present day face recognition system that makes use of 3D facial mapping are adequately secure.
Despite the ability to perform touch-less biometric identification and authentication, face recognition may face challenges during a disease outbreak situation. Some countermeasures (such as wearing masks) taken to prevent the spread of a disease can hinder its usability. China has a large deployment of face recognition technology. From surveillance to shopping malls and airports to train stations, face recognition is a part of daily life in major Chinese cities.
However, in Covid 19 pandemic situation, face recognition is causing more problems than offering a solution. According to a report published in Abacus News, people in China have been facing trouble in performing face recognition due to the protective mask they wear. Removing mask increases the risk of the infection, while keeping in on results in identification troubles.
Iris recognition is a completely non-contact and highly secure biometric recognition approach. Iris recognition leverages the unique iris pattern found in the human eye to establish identity and authenticate it. Iris is visible to the naked eye. It is the pigmented circular portion, which sits between the cornea and the lens in the human eye. Iris pattern can be captured from a distance, which makes it a completely touch-less biometric recognition method.
Iris scan and retina scan are sometimes used interchangeably to refer iris scan, however, they significantly differ from the each other. Iris recognition scans iris of human eye (the colored portion, also visible from the outside), while retina recognition scans the retina. Retina is located in the posterior section of the inner eye, which is impossible to observe without special instrument. Iris scan is a non-intrusive biometric modality, while retina recognition requires close contact with the recognition system.
Iris recognition can even outperform face recognition when it comes to personal identification or authentication during a pandemic situation such as Covid 19. During the contagious disease outbreaks, wearing mask is encouraged, which does not go well with face recognition. Iris recognition does not require subjects to remove mask as it scan eyes, so people do not have to compromise their safety during biometric identification or authentication.
Touch-less fingerprint recognition
Most present day fingerprint recognition deployments leverage touch-based recognition devices. As the name implies, a physical contact is required between the subject and the recognition device to make the biometric recognition work. However, it raises hygiene concerns, specially during the time of a disease outbreak. Setting up touch-less fingerprint recognition can be a potential solution of the hygiene related issues in standard fingerprint recognition.
Touch based fingerprint recognition systems make use of different approaches such as optical, capacitive, ultrasonic, etc. to read fingerprints. On the other hand, most touch-less fingerprint recognition models propose to use a digital camera to capture fingerprint details. Using a camera for reading fingerprints offers several advantages. It is easy to set up can capture high quality images without additional hardware. It does not suffer with the problem of elastic deformation. Elastic deformation is the distortion of friction ridges during a finger scan. Friction ridges deform during a scan due to the pressure and natural elasticity of the human skin.
Touch-less fingerprint recognition can be setup with a smartphone / tablet and inbuilt device camera can be used to capture fingerprints. As of now, touch-less fingerprint recognition has a negligible market share with limited applications. Coronavirus outbreak can be an opportunity for innovators to develop new touch-less fingerprint recognition hardware, devices and application to mitigate hygiene concerns.
Biometrics to fight coronavirus
On one side, some countries have stopped using biometrics to avoid coronavirus spread, on the flip side, they are using it themselves to curb the spread. According to a report published on BBC, Russian authorities are using face recognition to keep track of people during the Covid 19 pandemic. Moscow’s city-wide surveillance camera network has been integrated with face recognition, which can detect people on quarantine. If anyone is found to be breaking quarantine protocol, the systems sends an alert to the police.
Countries like Canada, India, China, etc. are also using several measures including biometrics to make sure that quarantined patients with Covid 19 follow the rules. They are using mobile apps, surveillance cameras, face biometrics, GPS location to keep track of quarantined individuals. China’s largest search engine Baidu has developed an artificial intelligence powered face detection AI engine that can identify people who are not wearing a mask.
Many countries have urged people to stop using shared biometric scanners to avoid coronavirus spread. On the other hand, some countries are using face recognition biometrics to track individuals to curb the pandemic. As half of the population is living under lockdown or stay home orders, it can be a good time for organizations to explore touch-less biometric recognition approaches such as face or iris recognition.
Coronavirus continues to devastate the world with fatalities and infection cases heading northward. This outbreak is unprecedented is modern history and will surely leave some long lasting social and psychological impacts throughout the world. Social distancing, staying home, and avoiding touching shared surfaces are simple, yet powerful precautions that can be exercised to prevent the spread.
It is a good idea to avoid touching shared surfaces, at least as long as the pandemic is through its course. However, touching or holding shared surfaces cannot be given up forever. At stores, workplaces, gyms, public transports, etc.you have to touch and hold a lot of shared surfaces, products and equipment. Several clinical trials for coronavirus drugs and vaccines are underway. We will eventually find a cure, we always have, and life will go on.
Do we really need a switch?
Amid the coronavirus pandemic situation, countries have been exercising social distancing, lock downs and many other counter measures to contain the infection. Avoiding shared biometric scanners is just a tiny fraction of the whole equation. These are not normal circumstances and desperate times bring desperate measures. The current pandemic situation may seem as it will change our lives and social behavior, but as history has proved it repetitively, things will eventually return to normalcy.
At public transport, stores, and even at the hospitals, we need to touch and hold things. Touching or holding things cannot be given up entirely and there is actually no need for that in normal circumstances. However, it is good to avoid touching surfaces along with other precautions as long as the pandemic is not contained.
At this point, people may be afraid to touch shared surfaces such as elevator buttons, subway polls, door handles, etc. and their fear is justified. It is good to be extra-cautious until we find a cure to the Covid 19, which we eventually will. But should we start being suspicious about everything and stop touching things forever? Well, we should not and in fact, we cannot.