Security Review: Pandemic Prevention

By hmu2 at 3:08 pm on January 30, 2009 | 2 Comments

According to a New Scientist Article, a company called Biorics wants to control the spread of pandemic disease by dispersing “cough-detecting” microphones throughout airport lounges. The proposed technology would detect coughing passengers and distinguish a common-cold-like cough from one that could be a symptom of a serious and spreadable disease. In 1998, a group of scientists from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan showed that they could discriminate between productive and non-productive coughs; where a productive cough is usually accompanied by the expulsion of phlegm (i.e. a sick person’s cough). Biorics used this research to develop a system that theoretically could detect a sick traveler in an airport and stop the spread of a possibly devastating disease.


  • The obvious security goal of this technology is to reduce the spread of potentially pandemic disease by detecting it early. By detecting disease in airport lounges, the international spread of serious illnesses can be mitigated.
  • A secondary use of this technology and a possible asset is to detect illnesses in livestock to prevent the spread of animal-borne disease. By detecting animal “coughs” that indicate serious illness, food safety issues and health hazards caused by sick livestock could be avoided.


  • Third parties (e.g. CIA, NSA, etc.) could get access to conversation/location data.
  • Adversaries could infect a specific individual and track him and record his conversations as he travels. Or a group of adversaries could all infect themselves with a non-terminal disease that would give them a distinguishable cough in order to potentially quarantine an entire airport. Stranding hundreds of travelers would not only be costly, but would result in a prime target for large scale terrorist attacks.
  • Airport workers who have access to recorded data/control of the microphones would be able to intentionally misinterpret the data to detain a specific individual. A person with access to this data could also record and manipulate conversation and location data.


  • One potential weakness is filtering microphone data from crowded, noisy areas. Yelling, loud noises, or fake coughing could cause a false positive.
  • Another weakness is attempting to contain an infected individual once a disease is identified. Numerous other travelers would have to be quarantined as well in order to actually prevent an outbreak. This seems costly and incredibly inconvenient. Also, this situation could result in many healthy people becoming infected by being quarantined with the infected individual.
  • This technology would require constant monitoring of incoming data and numerous employees to track down and quarantine infected individuals. This could be costly.
  • One of the biggest weaknesses from a traveler’s point of view is that this technology inflicts yet another way to make traveling slow and inconvenient.


  • A simple cough screening (just like taking off your shoes, checking your bags, etc.) could be administered while people go through security. A doctor or health worker would have to be present in order to verify the disease in travelers who test positive.
  • By only allowing doctors/health workers (rather than a security guard) to access the data, privacy could be better maintained.
  • In order to speed up the quarantine process for possibly infected passenger, a quick test should be developed to confirm/verify illness on site. This would allow healthy but misidentified passengers to be on their way sooner.


  • People’s privacy could be violated in several ways: medical data could be leaked, conversations could be monitored/recorded, and people’s location could be tracked.
  • Even if the above risks were addressed, this system would only be effective if every major airport adopted it, which seems unlikely given the lack of consistency in airport procedures worldwide.
  • This technology is not very likely to evolve because it is too invasive and too likely to be abused.

Although this technology is well-intentioned and could be a very powerful tool for preventing the spread of diseases, the potential for abuse and invasion of personal privacy is too great. If this technology was used more overtly, as described in our possible defenses section, it could be more accepted. Implementing this technology for livestock has greater potential, as animals have less concern about their privacy . Preventing the spread of diseases in livestock could also greatly impact the spread of animal-to-human transmittable disease.

Authored By: Heather Underwood & Guy Bordelon

Filed under: Ethics,Miscellaneous,Policy,Security Reviews2 Comments »


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    Comment by Ivayla Dermendjieva

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    Placing any kind of monitoring device (such as microphones) inside publicly accessible and busy places brings about many questions. A few crucial elements which must be addressed are: What kind of microphones will be used and what will they be able to detect? Could they be used to record private individual conversation? Could they be used to track people? How long will the data collected be stored? Who will have access to this data? And who will program the software responsible for this recognition. A serious concern that comes to mind is the question of whether this network of microphones can be hijacked. If the microphones are good enough to detect individual questions, this implies that a hijacker could attack all of the questions raised above. They could, in the least, listen in to people’s conversations, or worse, record and store them. Even scarier, since there is a network of these microphones, they could potentially be used to track people. Taking it even further, it is not unreasonable to ask whether an attacker could obtain any information/control of any of the airport systems by gaining control of this particular network. In other words, how closely coupled will this system be with the rest of the systems in the airport.

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    Comment by Joshua Barr

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    This doesn’t sound very useful to me. The article says that they’ve succeeded in distinguishing between productive and non-productive coughs. To me that rises to the level of useless trivia, since we undoubtedly have many millions of productive coughs in airports across the world each year, and fewer than one pandemic per decade. Wake me up when they can tell the difference between emphysema and SARS (or the next, as-yet-uknown pandemic… neat trick, that). Your confidence level would have to be simply unreal to justify the sort of (immeasurably costly, disruptive, and potentially destructive) measures it would take to stop the spread of an unknown pandemic.

    The paranoiac in me says that this system would be far better at finding productive conversations than productive coughs… And far more likely to be used that way. I don’t believe that it’s possible to make a system that could be used correctly for this purpose, so any system purported to be so purposed could only be mis-used.

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