Public safety or invasion of privacy? COVID-19 and the police use of drones

Public safety or invasion of privacy? COVID-19 and the police use of drones

Andrew Staniforth | Policing Insight

Public safety or invasion of privacy? COVID-19 and the police use of drones 

Andrew Staniforth | Policing Insight

Policing Insight contributor Andrew Staniforth considers how the use of drones to aid police enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic has been received by the general public both within the UK and abroad.

To enforce new emergency powers for public gatherings, social distancing curfews and quarantine rules, police forces across the world utilised specially modified drones to prevent the rise of COVID-19 infections.

But the sudden size, scale and scope of the global Coronavirus pandemic brought the social acceptance of drones in society to the fore, testing the ability of governments to delicately balance the provision of safety and security to the public while preserving citizen privacy, civil liberties and fundamental human rights.  

Surveillance state

Applauded for their ingenuity and novel approach, senior police officers granted the use of drones to enforce COVID-19 emergency measures as they offered a new tactic for policing public gatherings, which could be operated remotely and presented little or no risk to infection of their operators.

But not all residents in communities where law enforcement agencies used drones during the COVID-19 crisis were happy to see them. Some members of the public found their introduction unwelcome, suggesting that they impinged upon their freedoms, a view shared by many citizens across the world. 

In the suburban town of Westport, Connecticut, residents raised concerns over possible privacy violations as members of the public and the media observed police surveillance drones yelling at people not observing the six feet apart social distancing guidance. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT), a non-partisan, non-profit membership organisation that defends, promotes and preserves individual rights and liberties, described the police action as an avenue for privacy-invading companies to use the Coronavirus pandemic to create a market for their surveillance products.

The Westport Police Department responded to the concerns indicating that police drones would not fly over private yards or use facial recognition technology. Westport first selectman Jim Marpe praised the police department for adopting smart solutions in fighting the spread of the virus.

He said the use of the surveillance drones was a pilot program to help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 virus infections to return the city to its regular routine. The extent of public concern and complaints made to authorities has resulted in the Westport Police Department pausing the use of drones until a comprehensive assessment of the privacy impacts is completed. 

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Public safety or invasion of privacy? COVID-19 and the police use of drones, Andrew Staniforth, Policing Insight, 2020

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