A less-invasive Covid-19 tracker: Sniffer dogs

Privacy news
3 mins
Dog's nose over a coronavirus particle.

This article was originally published on November 19, 2020.

The technological solutions that countries have implemented to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have been costly to individual privacy.

From advancing facial recognition and contact-tracing apps to state censorship and surveillance measures, there is a sense that these solutions are being tested in real time with the public, the majority of whom report feeling some trepidation over them.

Some countries have been exploring more privacy-friendly solutions that the public will accept. One of those is the use of dogs.

Finland, for instance, has been trialing sniffer dogs to detect Covid-19 at Helsinki Airport, with remarkable success. Countries in lockdown limbo, like the UK, have also started training dogs to detect Covid-19, in the hopes that it will “revolutionise how we diagnose this virus, [and] help return our lives back to some sort of normality.”

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These sniff tests at airports are relatively uncharted waters. Dogs have been used before to detect malaria but only as “proof of concept,” not in real-world scenarios. The trial in Helsinki Airport marks the first time dogs have been used to detect disease in a relatively public setting.

How the sniff test works

The Guardian describes the process of passengers at Helsinki Airport who, after collecting their baggage, dab their skin with a wipe and have their sweat sniffed by a dog in a separate booth next to control samples. The dog indicates whether the wipe smells positive by yelping, pawing, or lying down. After detection, the passenger is advised to take a swab test as verification.

The test idea stemmed from a French study published this year that found “very high evidence” of differences in sweat between Covid-19 positive and negative individuals. So far, the dogs at Helsinki Airport are reported to have almost 100% accuracy and can detect the virus even before a person shows symptoms.

Experts are already saying the success of sniffer dogs in detecting Covid-19 could lead to the expansion of their use to hospitals and care homes, as well as at sporting and cultural events.

Are sniffer dogs a form of surveillance?

Sniffer dogs are most commonly associated with searching for drugs or contraband at airports, checkpoints, and places that law enforcement deems “reasonably suspicious.”

The use of sniffer dogs in law enforcement has stirred decades of debate in the U.S. over whether this method can lead to infringements on the Fourth Amendment right that protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

Several cases debating their use have reached the Supreme Court, deliberating over the use of dogs at motor stops and outside people’s homes without a warrant.

As with any technological tool that is wielded by humans, the sniff searches themselves have also been subject to abuse by their human owners: In 2012 three highway patrol officers in Nevada were caught training their dogs to respond to their cues, instead of the intended cues of smelling drugs and contraband.

Covid searches with dogs are less invasive

So how worried should you be about a dog sniffing you for Covid-19? First of all, it’s not a crime to have the virus, and a positive sniff test is only meant to help you and others stay healthy, not inconvenience you.

In contrast to contact-tracing apps and thermal-imaging cameras, dogs won’t leak information about your location to third parties. Plus you don’t need a phone or other tech for dogs to work.

But that doesn’t make this method completely unobtrusive. A dog is still smelling something that is biologically yours, and the general stigma of having a dog identify something about you that separates you from the rest of the populace can feel alienating and intimidating.

However, I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say that more dogs, along with fewer cameras and tracking apps, is something we can get behind.

Also read: The website that knows where your cat lives

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Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.