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Social-distancing detecting ‘pandemic drones’ dumped over privacy concerns

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It’s worth a try?

Enforcing social distancing during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic is a tough thing to do, but the suburban town of Westport, Connecticut, had what might most over-the-top solution yet: deploying specialized police drones to yell at people who aren’t standing six feet apart, as spotted by Gizmodo.

However, shortly after announcing the program, the Westport Police Department scrapped the plan to use drones to try to enforce social distancing, following condemnation by the ACLU of Connecticut, who called the plan an example of “privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities,” via the Hartford Courant.

In a statement, Westport first selectman Jim Marpe commented that “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.”

In the original post on Facebook announcing the new drone program, the Westport Police Department claimed that the drones wouldn’t be used on resident’s private yards, nor would they be using facial recognition technology. Still, it’s hard not to imagine possible privacy concerns for drones that are flying around and monitoring people’s physical locations.

“The goal to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers. It will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology,” the department’s original post reads.

The company behind the drones, Draganfly, is making some pretty big claims about what it can do, saying that the “pandemic drone” uses “specialized sensor and computer vision systems” in order to track people with fevers or high temperatures, heart and respiratory rates, people sneezing and coughing in crowds, and large groups of people gathering together. Draganfly also claims that its drone can detect “infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet.”

It’s not clear how accurate any of those measurement claims are — Draganfly doesn’t make any diagnostic claims in its press release, noting that the goal of the program was to help track broader patterns for cities or towns — nor did the Westport PD explain how it would use this data to help fight the spread of the virus.

But alongside those bigger claims is a far more simple function: measuring when people are less than six feet part and alerting them to practice better social distancing. It’s something that we’ve already seen civilians do with drones, as seen in New York City earlier in April when a self-proclaimed “volunteer drone task force” flew a drone in a park that reminded people to properly social distance.

While drones may seem like a ridiculous way to ask people to stop congregating, it’s not completely absurd, given that the remote nature of the technology means that officers don’t have to directly break up crowds and potentially risk infection themselves.

Update April 23rd, 5:16pm: Updated article with new information regarding Westport’s decision to not participate in Draganfly’s drone program, following outcry from the ACLU.