If you think you hear a message from above—look up—it might be a police drone telling you to go home.
Police Deploy Drones During COVID-19
Several police departments have deployed drones to provide automated reminders to the public to social distance and obey stay-at-home orders. Law enforcement departments in Connecticut, Florida, and New Jersey are sending out drones to monitor public parks, venues, and beaches. The drones warn social-distancing violators to maintain distance and, if necessary, the department can send officers to the area to disperse social gatherings.
Drones are not new to law enforcement. Before COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, law enforcement and emergency responders used drones to aid in search-and-rescue missions and fire incidents and to provide overhead views of crime and accident scenes. In these situations, a specific emergency or crime was underway. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, emergency responders are stretched thin, and some departments are looking for creative ways to keep the public and emergency personnel safe.
Drone Capabilities Expanding at Rapid Pace
Like other technologies, drone technologies and capabilities are advancing at a rapid pace. Drones can be used to monitor public places and provide automated messages. But drones can also be equipped with night vision, thermal radar, and x-ray radar technologies. With these technologies, government officials could use drones to detect and monitor people’s temperatures, respiratory and heart rates, and sneezing and coughing.
Can Drones Keep the Public Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
- patrol large areas that normally would require several officers
- reduce law enforcement officers’ exposure to the virus
- preserve valuable human resources needed for in-person emergency responses
- deliver health messages and education on social distancing to citizens in remote areas or homeless encampments
- detect hot spots of infection rates in the community, and
- collect health and public safety data for better-informed decisions.
To some extent, critics agree but point out that this level of monitoring could infringe on citizens’ rights to privacy and liberty and creates the potential for government abuse. Some are concerned that unregulated drone use could:
- create a “surveillance state” where all public movement is monitored, tracked, and recorded
- cause a chilling effect that changes people’s behavior in public or even at home
- violate a person’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches, and
- be subject to government abuse by targeting individuals based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
A primary concern is that, during the coronavirus emergency, officials might hurriedly expand the use of drones without implementing rules and regulations to protect citizens’ rights. And once the drones have been released, it will be difficult to dial back their use.
Does a Middle Ground Exist Between Public Safety and Privacy?
Some suggest the longer the pandemic continues, the more Americans will accept the use of tracking and monitoring devices. State governments seeking to reopen their economies might see drones as a way to end stay-at-home orders while maintaining social distancing efforts. Identifying coronavirus hot spots in communities could minimize the need for blanket stay-at-home orders and direct health resources to that area.
Even if drone surveillance doesn’t take off in the U.S., the question of whether a middle ground exists between public safety and privacy remains, as governments look at and implement coronavirus-related tracking through smartphone apps and other devices.