Biometric Phones Could Prevent the Next Epidemic

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Cloud-connected phones offer massive benefits over fixed lines, but those advantages go beyond communication purposes. What if you could use biometric smartphones to spot Malaria, Cholera or Ebola before an outbreak.

The idea was pitched by Dr. Leslie Saxon at South by Southwest (SXSW), a series of festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States.

Collecting biometric data for medical purposes

During a discussion about biometrics, Dr. Saxon talked of the importance of gathering user data on a global scale using biometric hardware embedded in the devices we use the most – our phones. It may sound scary it first, but considering the benefits projected by Dr. Saxon, it could well be worth the effort.

The founder of the Center for Body Computing at USC in Los Angeles, Dr. Saxon envisions a future where smartphones equipped with biometric technology will be used to amass medical data and even symptoms in an effort to predict and even prevent an outbreak, such as the recent Ebola incident.

“Imagine if you’re checking your phone 150 times a day — which is the average — what if sometimes you’re getting a facial scan that measures your blood pressure, your heart rate, something else and you’re collecting this massive biometric cloud in the sky while you’re just opening stuff,” Saxon said. “With this type of density of data just from the invisible — just from opening devices — you could potentially be transforming healthcare. The crazy part of that is you could scale that really globally.”

Smartphones today are ubiquitous, and biometric tech is also becoming a common enough occurrence that the hardware can be fitted literally anywhere.

“We can predict Ebola and things like that”

Dr. Saxon is convinced that a global network of biometric portables could have possibly prevented the latest Ebola outbreak.

“I imagine this day where, as much as everyone walking around here is immersed in their alternative digital reality that healthcare is a a part of that,” she said. “If we have enough of this biometric data then we can predict ebola and things like that very early on.”

Malaria, cholera, typhoid fever, meningitis and other viral hemorrhagic fevers that resemble EVD could also be spotted using this type of technology. However, as it is always the case with any data-collecting initiative, many users will be reluctant to share their biometric information with third parties should they feel that this data could somehow be breached and / or used against them.

Dr. Saxon is careful to point out that with today’s weak safeguards her vision will remain unfulfilled, an opinion shared by White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel. At a security forum a few months ago, Daniel suggested that IT security should no longer rely on passwords, but on biometrics.

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