Surveillance

Community Anger Shuts Down Connecticut City's Plan To Use Drones for Coronavirus Monitoring

Westport won’t be using tech to monitor people’s body temperatures or whether they’re properly social distancing.

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It took all of two days for a Connecticut city's plan to use drone tech to snoop on citizen behavior to make sure they're complying with coronavirus rules for an angry public to shut it down.

On Tuesday, the Westport Police Department announced it had launched a pilot project in coordination with Canadian company Draganfly to send drones hovering around the city to make sure people in public spaces were maintaining six feet of social distance.

But these drones were much more intrusive than simply looking for crowds. Draganfly's drone-mounted biometric monitoring tools are even more sinister, dystopian, and potentially abusive. The drone is able to quickly measure whether people are six feet apart from each other, and Draganfly claims it can also measure heart rate, body temperature, and other vital signs, which suggests that a drone might be able to spot potential infections from above.

Here's how Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas promoted this "Flatten the Curve Pilot Program" in a Facebook post from Tuesday:

"Westport and its first responder network is one of the most progressive public safety advocates in the nation. They are real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to protect its community. This pandemic has opened up a new frontier and urgent need for the use of drones. Draganfly is the first in the U.S. to implement this state-of-the-art technology to capture and analyze data in a way that has been peer reviewed and clinically researched to save lives."

The community was not thrilled. Facebook comments under the post blasted Westport for violating the privacy of citizens. The police department took a drone out for a test run intended to show the public that it was useful. Instead, it looked creepy. They brought the drone to a Trader Joe's where customers were waiting in line to be allowed into the store to go shopping. They were socially distancing, but they weren't always perfectly six feet apart, and the drone flagged people who were waiting just slightly too close to others or who passed by other people at a distance closer than six feet.

And that was pretty much all it showed—very brief moments of people being maybe a few inches too close to each other. This was not exactly pioneering new ways of keeping people safe. But it did have the potential to violate people's privacy since its biometric analysis supposedly detects symptoms associated with COVID-19, but also any other ailment that increases a person's temperature.

Connecticut activist Michael Picard—who's been written about previously at Reasonraised the alarm about these drones. "Technology is not the be-all and end-all," he tells Reason. "How can a drone sense when someone has a fever when the difference between a normal temperature and a fever is a tenth of a degree, and how will it know the difference between coronavirus and springtime allergies? This will just subject people to pointless harassment. This is just a stepping stone. Before you know it, police departments will be weaponizing drones."

On Thursday, Westport announced it would not participate in this pilot program after all. "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."

In response to the city's decision, Picard declared "a victory for the people and civil liberties, especially in a time of overreach….Using drones to surveil people will only breed mistrust, and it will cause people to be unnecessarily harassed."

The entire proposal seemed like a policing tech project looking for an excuse to exist. Westport is a town of fewer than 30,000 people, and it's absurd to think that the police would need a drone to know when large groups of people are organizing, where they're organizing, and whether they're observing social distancing guidelines. Monitoring people's biometric information, meanwhile, is not just unnecessary but invasive and likely to result in police actions that cause more harm than good.

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  1. world’s most expensive skeet.

    1. I was just taking Biden’s advice and shooting my shotgun wildly into the air from my front porch, I can hardly be blamed if some police drone happened to be up there when I did it.

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    3. and now I have to Google “what’s the range of #7 birdshot from a 12 ga?”

  2. I originally meant it as a joke, but, I’m thinking that there might be something to selling an anti-drone service.

    1. I think given the prevalence of guns in the US, particularly the sporting sort for birds, that anti-drone sentiment is going to be expressed both readily and directly, with the tools close to hand.

      However, I do think there’s some fun hobby projects for those who want to do it a bit more creatively. Using something like an arduino hooked into a mm-band antenna/projector, and armed with one of those more ambitious model rockets (the kind with the adjustable fins for mid-flight maneuvers) you could make your very own extremely short range SAM battery. You could have it ping your phone with targeting data when it identifies a potential drone, and blast it to bits with the press of button. How fun!

      Alternatively, people could take up falconry again. Though it might take something like a goshawk to take down some of the platforms the cops use. In a similar vein to how folks trained crows to bring them loose change, I wouldn’t be surprised if you could teach them to mob drones out of the air, though I’m not sure exactly how you’d arrange for the reward.

      1. Localized EMP or fuzz box. No camera record of where the projectile came from, no scorched debris to sift through, no pieces of drone raining down on neighbor’s yards… just one minute the drone’s flying along doing it’s monitoring, the next minute the local PD has to explain to the neighbors why the idiot pilot can’t even keep the thing in the air.

        Also, much easier to do mobile without looking lie a terrorist. Of course, it’s already just as illegal as guided rockets as pirate radio operators have been doing it for years.

        1. it’s already just as illegal as guided rockets

          That is to say, guided rockets aren’t entirely illegal but have ceiling and ranges imposed on them, much like unauthorized civilian airwave… disruption.

    2. I agree, and I’d buy one just for the fun of it. Lock onto the drone via it’s signal, or even just that standard noise and head right for it. Some kind of little plane with a battery powered prop and when the nose cone hits something a net pops out fouling the props?

  3. I build RC drones for fun. Have for years.

    I also build foamboard (and balsa) RC airplanes for fun.

    A fixed wing RC foamboard airplane is faster than any multirotor copter. Period.

    I can build a paper airplane, put a small camera on it to transmit video back to me so I can fly FPV for $45.

    Trail a 25′ line of paracord behind the paper airplane and I can take out ANY multirotor at ANY altitude without shooting anything into the air.

    Add a quick release for the paracord and after snagging and killing the drone, I can fly my paper airplane back.

    High tech wins battles. Low tech wins wars.

    1. For around $45… Reason seems to drop my greater than and less than characters as html tags…

      1. High tech wins battles. Low tech wins wars.

  4. Meanwhile Cuomo and DeBlasio laugh and continue to abuse their citizens civil rights. We have really seen who the tyrants are and they are all democrats.

    1. That was what was especially rich about their whole “We don’t have a king!” thing when Trump was flexing his executive powers.

      They don’t really believe that of course, they just don’t like the idea that someone else is King. All that executive privilege is theirs, not Trumps’, goddammit!

  5. Reads like a flying HIPPA violation

  6. This was such a well written article. Thank you!

  7. uh huh. sure. they have given all of their drones back to Santa

  8. Westport, home of Martha Stewart, is one of the wealthiest in the US if not the world. So of course the cops aren’t going to argue with them. Won’t stop them from using drones against poorer browner people

    1. Like your mom?

  9. I’d be curious to know if this was initiated by the local police department or if they were approached by Draganfly to pilot their creepy technology.

    I’m glad they got shut down, but sadly I think this type of technology is inevitable in society. Unfortunately, Draganfly will become a highly profitable company selling to authoritarian regimes around the world (and to western governments but just on the down low).

  10. While I do love the idea of shooting down drones for sport, and its the right long-term solution (bleed them until there are no more drones), it seems impractical to lug that gear around. I’m thinking: Mylar umbrella. Blind the damn drone and confound any thermal/vitals scanners. Where can I get one?

    1. Except that a Mylar umbrella would pretty much be an “I’m the guy you’re looking for” signal.

  11. I live in Westport and the First Selectman (mayor) was immediately blasted after this was announced, even by his closest allies. He is a good guy and effective manager but has a habit of not wanting to offend anyone which allows some dumb ideas to get traction. And by the way – Martha Stewart left town about 10 years ago.

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