At the start of the week, the city of Westport, Connecticut, began testing a “pandemic drone” designed to detect signs of illness in crowds. By Wednesday, protesters were out to oppose the drone for invading their privacy. And by Thursday, the city had pulled out of the program. This is just the latest clash in a growing backlash against the use of surveillance drones to fight COVID-19.

Police forces across the country (and around the world) have been employing drones in their pandemic response. Some monitor public spaces to determine if people are breaking social distancing rules. Often, the drones carry loudspeakers and play recorded messages admonishing people to go home. Many of these aircraft are from Chinese drone maker DJI, which has triggered its own special backlash over fears of foreign spying.

A super health sensor

But the Pandemic Drone, made by Canadian company Draganfly, is especially ambitious. It uses sophisticated computer vision to spot signs of illness in crowds. It can use heat sensing, for instance, to register if people may have a fever. But it goes way beyond that. Motion and color analysis can determine heart rate, and other algorithms can spot the movements that indicate someone is coughing.

The Pandemic Drone is part of an international effort called Vital Intelligence Project. It’s a partnership between Draganfly, AI company Vital Intelligence, the Australian Department of Defense, and the University of South Australia. Their aim is to harvest data from all kinds of cameras, such as CCTV security cams, to find patterns of illness in communities across the world.

The pandemic drone is just one small, initial piece of the project. But it’s enough to stir a backlash. “Do we want to live in a police state or a free society?” Westport resident Michael Picard told the Stamford Advocate. “It is crazy to see how much power the government is grabbing a hold of in such a short period of time.”

The self-styled “liberty activist” was protesting outside the Westport Police Department on Wednesday night, along with a few other supporters.

The ACLU of Connecticut has also raised concerns. “[W]e are naturally skeptical of towns announcing these kinds of partnerships without information about who is operating the drones, what data they will collect, or how or if that data will be stored, shared, or sold,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut in a statement on Wednesday. (The organization was already fighting a battle against a state bill that would expand police drone-surveillance powers.)

Safety versus privacy

To their credit, the Vital Intelligence Project and Westport police did provide some information about what the drone collects. They said it was for general surveys of public health. So while the drone can spot individuals coughing, it’s not meant to track individuals. Rather the goal is to find the patterns and identify hotspots where the illness may be spreading, said Draganfly. Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said that the drones would not use facial recognition or look into private yards.

The New York Civil Liberties Union also issued a statement, urging for transparency, limited scope and duration of the project, and clear scientific justification that the technology works. (Of course, that’s what testing is meant to determine.)

The negative attention was ultimately too much. On Thursday, the city pulled out of the test program. The announcement was made by Jim Marpe, the town’s First Selectman (essentially head of a city council) on the police department’s Facebook page:

“[I]n our good faith effort to get ahead of the virus and potential need to manage and safely monitor crowds and social distancing in this environment, our announcement was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions. We heard and respect your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and re-considering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol.”

Westport’s pullout seems to close the books for Connecticut, at least. None of the neighboring towns, such as Greenwich, have any plans to employ drones to monitor the pandemic, according to reporting by the Greenwich Free Press.

Draganfly says that it has received interest from towns in other states, however. So more such civil liberty battles may play out as society tries to find a balance between safety and privacy in the COVID-19 struggle.

This article has been updated with information about Westport’s withdrawal from the program.


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