Weighing Public Health Against Privacy – Governments’ Use of Drones to Expand the Surveillance State During the Coronavirus

As we enter what experts are calling the “second inning” of the Coronavirus pandemic, I have realized — either as a result of being confined to my house for more than a month now or simply through revelation — that the pandemic has changed our world dramatically. Coronavirus has disrupted our lives on a scale that we have not seen in our lifetimes.

In particular, the virus has infringed on our very rights of privacy and civil liberties by allowing governments to use invasive technology in the interest of public safety. Now, governmental agencies are using drones to combat the spread of the virus. There is a growing concern that governments are using the pandemic to further expand their reach into our private lives under the veil of public health and safety.

Admittedly, the use of drones to invade our privacy struck me as a bit Orwellian despite that such actions could actually save lives. Consequently, such actions raise a very important issue – how much of our privacy rights are we willing to give up in the interest of public safety?

Global Government Drone Use to Combat the Pandemic

Governments around the world are engaging in a very delicate balancing act of weighing the public’s safety against invading its citizens’ right to privacy.

China: Drones Track Your Whereabouts to Prevent Spread

For quite some time, China has invaded its citizens’ privacy in the alleged interest of public safety. Over the years, the Chinese government has implemented a network of monitoring systems to supervise the lives of its citizens. Apparently, China has more than 220 million closed circuit cameras monitoring its citizens — four times the amount of cameras in the U.S.

When the Coronavirus was first discovered, China forced its citizens to install cellphone apps that assigned them a code according to their perceived risk of spreading the virus. The code granted the people permission to travel or enter public spaces, allowed drones to track their whereabouts, and shared data on users’ phones with authorities. Also, China is using surveying, mapping, and delivery drones to help ensure that an estimated 50 million residents are kept at home and indoors in an effort to contain the Coronavirus outbreak. The drones have been adapted to detect the Coronavirus on individuals and for crowd management.

Madrid: Drones Used to Break Up Gatherings

In Madrid, Spain, the police have deployed drones to film streets and parks and use an onboard speaker to order people to return home. According to the Madrid police, they will not hesitate to use all the means at their disposal to ensure the security of its citizens.

United States: Drones Considered to Monitor Symptoms and Enforce Lockdown

In the U.S., governmental agencies have taken notice of China’s strategies and have implemented drone programs to ensure the safety of its citizens. In fact, drones from the Chinese manufacturer, Da Jiang Innovations (“DJI”), have gone to 43 law enforcement agencies in 22 states to help ensure social distancing rules.

In Westport, Connecticut, the police considered an aggressive surveillance program that would use “pandemic drones” to track citizens who have tested positive for the virus by reading their body temperatures. The drones are fitted with sensors and computer vision systems that measure body temperature, breathing, and heart rates from up to 190 feet away and can also spot if someone’s sneezing, coughing or following social distancing rules. According to the city’s officials, they intended the technology to limit the spread of the virus and to protect at-risk groups, such as seniors and crowds gathering in public places. Although the drone manufacturer claims that its software uses biometric readings but no facial recognition and that all the data it collects is anonymized, citizens can’t help but feel somewhat invaded by the drones’ gathering of their vital information — all in the interest of population health. Due to the privacy concerns raised by its citizens, the city has decided not to implement the program.

In Elizabeth, New Jersey, police used drones to spread an automated message reminding people of stay at home orders.

In Chula Vista California, the police department recently revised their plan to use drones equipped with loudspeakers to communicate and reach vulnerable populations in inaccessible areas of the city. Rather than use the drones’ cameras and loudspeakers to enforce a Coronavirus lockdown in these areas, the police will now use those drones for pro-active communication and outreach. 

Government Drone Use Requires Balance: Privacy and Liberty vs. Safety and Health

Undoubtedly, the Coronavirus outbreak has led to governments around the world to experiment with using drones to help combat the virus. While there may be no way of stopping such experimentation, governments should protect consumer privacy as much as possible by ensuring that citizens are aware of what they are doing. Governments should strive to protect our privacy and civil liberties while contemporaneously protecting our security and safety. During these unprecedented times, we should not expect the same level of privacy during this pandemic as we normally would expect. Maybe we need to recognize that while our liberty is being limited, such limitations inure for the benefit of others. As the world continues to tackle this crisis, our individualized right to privacy may need to take a step back to allow for the protection and health of everyone.

Gordon K. Walton is a Chicago insurance coverage and risk management attorney whose practice and legal study include a focus on drone use and liability issues.