Coronavirus: ‘Pandemic drone’ that detects Covid-19 symptoms raises privacy concerns

‘Any new surveillance measure that isn’t being advocated for by public health professionals and restricted solely for public health use should be promptly rejected’

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Wednesday 22 April 2020 17:43 BST
Pandemic drone being tested in Connecticut

Police in Westport, Connecticut, will be testing a drone to monitor social distancing and detect whether people have coronavirus symptoms, such as fever or coughing.

First responders are looking for effective ways to monitor social distancing, ease the spread of Covid-19 and keep their communities and personnel safe, but there are concerns about privacy, efficacy, and the overall need for such a solution.

In partnership with drone company Draganfly, Police Chief Foti Koskinas and Captain Ryan Paulsson, head of the department’s drone programme, are testing the new technology called the ‘Flatten the Curve Pilot Programme’.

Mr Koskinas says: “Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required. Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation.”

The software uses biometric readings to understand population patterns, allowing quicker reaction times to potential health threats through the monitoring of gathering crowds at parks, beaches, train stations and other areas. Drones will not be used in individual private yards, nor does the software employ facial recognition technology, according to a police statement.

However, questions have been raised as to how accurate remote fever detection via drone can be, or if that is even useful information to stop the spread of the virus given many people are asymptomatic, or may have control of their fever or cough through medication.

While some local residents are interested in the potentially innovative use of technology, from a privacy perspective, others fear the encroachment of the state, and the further onset of a creeping dystopian nightmare.

On Twitter, users commented: “This creeps me out,” and “Orwell is alive and well”.

Some wanted clarification from a practical perspective — will officers be deployed if someone sneezes outside a grocery store, or has been running and is standing in a park with an elevated body temperature?

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, says that while we shouldn’t write off tools that help mitigate the effects of the pandemic, we must also recognise that they are not a magic solution to stem the spread of disease.

“Any new surveillance measure that isn’t being advocated for by public health professionals and restricted solely for public health use should be promptly rejected, and we are naturally sceptical 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,” Mr McGuire said.

“We are not hearing a cry for new surveillance technologies. 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.”

Drones were deployed in Wuhan, China, in the early days of the pandemic.

Connecticut currently has 20,360 confirmed cases on Covid-19 and 1,423 recorded deaths as of Wednesday.

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