The coronavirus pandemic has forced police departments in the US and around the world to rethink the ways they enforce laws. Police agencies are increasingly relying on drones to do what they have not had to do before: policing while socially distancing.
For example, here in my hometown, a drone with a loudspeaker attached to its top blared out:
“This is the Daytona Beach Police Department. We apologize for the inconvenience, but due to COVID-19, this park is currently closed.”
Several law enforcement agencies have recently unveiled drones that beam announcements at parks, beaches, and homeless camps to enforce stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines.
In Daytona Beach, Florida, officials say the drones can also be used during rescue operations, such as giving a drowning person a life preserver without actually touching them. Messod Bendayan, spokesman for the Daytona Beach Police Department, said:
“We started thinking about ways of how we can limit the ability to transmit (COVID-19). Instead of risking an officer, we just fly the drone and have the drone speak a message. It keeps officers safe and keeps people safe.”
As you can imagine, civil rights groups have pushed back against the use of such technology, saying some of its capabilities are invasive and pose constitutional threats. One of these threats is the ability to detect someone’s body temperature from a distance. To civil rights and privacy advocates, this amounts to an indiscriminate warrantless search – obtaining the private health information of people who did not give consent and aren’t under a criminal investigation. Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the Washington DC-based New Civil Liberties Alliance, said:
“People have a right to privacy. You can’t just take their temperature without any reason. I think this is just an example of something that police departments have a tendency to do. Someone sells them on a new technology and they can come up with what they think is reason to use it and they use it, but they don’t necessarily think about how invasive it might be.”
The group recently sent a letter asking the Daytona Beach Police Department to stop using drones that detect body temperatures.
Bendayan said the primary function of the department’s drones is to patrol public places such as parks. He indicated officials were considering using drones to find out who may have a fever. However, they have not yet done so, and he said that the only plans to use the technology to measure body temperature would be limited to those who enter the police department lobby.
Nevertheless, the use of drones has caused some controversy.
For example, the police department in Westport, Connecticut, abruptly pulled out of a pilot drone program that would’ve allowed the agency to monitor people’s temperatures from a distance and detect sneezing and coughing.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas said last month that the department’s plan to participate in the drone program “resulted in varied expressions of public concern and reservations.” The idea was not well received and led to more questions.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU in Connecticut, said the group is skeptical of local governments that are partnering with drone companies without information about what to do with the data the machines are collecting. McGuire said because many of those with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, fever-detecting drones may not be effective in limiting the spread of the virus. He added:
“The COVID-19 virus is a grave public health risk, so we shouldn’t write off tools that might help mitigate the problem. But we also must recognize that technology is no magic pill to stemming the pandemic. The urgent need at the moment, according to public health experts, is to ramp up testing capability, suppress transmission through social distancing measures, and support our hospitals as they face an influx of patients.”
The controversy over the use of drones emphasizes the uncertainty around a technology that’s capable of gathering personal information.
Still, the technology is already being used in places around the globe. USA Today reports:
In Italy, police are using drones to check on residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. In India, police are using drones to track large gatherings and monitor narrow roads police cars can’t get to. In France, health warnings are blared through drones flying over deserted beaches. DJI Enterprise, a drone company headquartered in Shenzen in southeastern China, said it has provided the technology to 43 law enforcement and public safety agencies in 22 states.