Conn. police will not test 'pandemic drone' that monitors social distancing

The public health initiative drew concerns about privacy invasion, despite reassurances the drone does not use facial recognition or collect private data

Russell Blair
The Hartford Courant

WESTPORT, Conn. — Westport has scrapped plans to use drone technology that can monitor social distancing and detect fevers and coughing as a tool in the fight against the coronavirus in the face of concerns about privacy.

The unusual public health initiative drew condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which described it as an example of “privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities.”

Westport police will no longer test out a heat-sensing drone as part of a COVID-19 prevention initiative.
Westport police will no longer test out a heat-sensing drone as part of a COVID-19 prevention initiative. (Photo/TNS)

“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 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,” David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said.

The pilot program was announced in a news release from the Westport Police Department on Tuesday. A subsequent news release Thursday said the town would not be moving forward with the initiative.

“In 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,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said. “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.”

Draganfly, the Canadian-based company that developed the drone technology, said in a news release when the program was launched that the drones would be “equipped with a specialized sensor and computer vision systems that can display fever temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, and wherever groups of people may work or congregate.”

“The technology can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet as well as measure social distancing for proactive public safety practices,” the company said.

Draganfly said its software does not use facial recognition technology. Westport said it intended to use the drones at places like beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas and shopping centers.

In addition to concerns about privacy, McGuire, the ACLU executive director, also doubted the effectiveness of the program, noting that many people with COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms. He said towns and the state should instead focus on ramping up testing.

In Meriden, city officials have been using standard drones to monitor visitors to parks and trails to ensure they are not gathering in large groups. That effort has not been met with as much resistance.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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