Civil rights groups have pushed back, saying some drone capabilities, such as detecting body temperature, are invasive and pose privacy concerns.
“This is the Daytona Beach Police Department. We apologize for the inconvenience, but due to COVID-19, this park is currently closed.”
So says a drone with a loud speaker attached to its top.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced police departments in the country and around the globe to fundamentally change the way they enforce laws. Police agencies are increasingly relying on these flying contraptions to do what they have not had to do before: policing while socially distancing. Over the past month, several law enforcement agencies have unveiled drones that broadcast 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 physical contact.
“We started thinking about ways of how we can limit the ability to transmit (COVID-19),” said Messod Bendayan, spokesman for the Daytona Beach Police Department. “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.”
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But civil rights groups have pushed back against the use of such technology, saying some of its capabilities are invasive and pose constitutional dangers. These include 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.
“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,” said Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance.
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The Washington, D.C.-based group recently sent a letter asking the Daytona Beach Police Department to stop using drones that detect body temperatures.
Bendayan said the main function of the department’s drones is to police public places such as parks. He said officials were considering using drones to find out who may have fever, but they have not done so, and any plans to use the technology to measure people’s temperatures are limited only to those entering the police department lobby.
Still, the use of drones has caused some controversy.
The police department in Westport, Connecticut, for example, 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.
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Police Chief Foti Koskinas said in April that the department’s plan to participate in the drone program “resulted in varied expressions of public concern and reservations.”
Jim Marpe, the town’s first selectman, said the use of drones was a “good faith effort to get ahead of the virus,” but the department’s announcement of its participation in the program was “not well-received” and led to more questions.
David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union 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.
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“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,” McGuire said. “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.”
Don Roby, third chairperson of the International Association of Police Chief's aviation committee, said police departments should be transparent, especially when they're using technology that's not available to the general public.
“It’s up to the chiefs, the sheriffs, the police commissioners to define what missions they’re going to use the drones for. ... They should be seeking some input from the community,” Roby said.
The controversy over the use of drones underscore the uncertainty around a technology that's capable of gathering personal information.
Still, the technology has proved to be popular, especially at a time when law enforcement officials have had to think of other ways to do their jobs.
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.
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SEARCHABLE MAP: Coronavirus death rates and cases for every US county: https://interactives.courier-journal.com/projects/cv19/map/
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