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By Clare O’Gara
Mon | Apr 27, 2020 | 6:15 AM PDT

Many medical experts believe that tracking your movement is critical to understanding and combating the COVID-19 pandemic. But when does this concept cross the line and invade our privacy?

The Westport Police Department in Connecticut might have an idea.

Pandemic drone flights announced to track coronavirus

As coronavirus quickly swept through the U.S., Fairfield County, Connecticut, quickly became an epicenter for cases on the east coast.

Westport, one of the county's municipalities, announced that it would try something new to combat the outbreak: flying a "pandemic drone" from Draganfly, an industry-leading manufacturer in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

You might view it as a way to collect coronavirus data from the air.

According to the Westport PD Facebook page, here was the goal of the program:

One of the major problems managing and responding to a pandemic is determining how wide the disease has spread and protecting first responders. According to Police Chief Koskinas, "Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required. Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation."

The drone software uses biometric readings to understand population patterns and allows quicker reaction time to ongoing events or potential health threats. The goal is to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers. It will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology.

Tracking this disease and protecting first responders is a major priority. But some Westport residents were concerned about how that priority conflicted with privacy.

Privacy concerns push back against pandemic drone flights 

Shortly after the Westport PD announced the program on Facebook, residents took to social media to share concerns—and there were a lot of them.

The post has more than 200 comments, including these:

"An extreme and disgusting over reach of government. Big brother is watching indeed. Regardless of the eloquent language of the post... it can be summarized as 'We will be watching you, and this is why it's good for you. Shut up and obey.' Disgusting and shameful."

Another angry commenter asked, "Since when do we live in a police state? This is how they force you to live in China, not America. What a gross display of force against the Citizens of Connecticut. You should be ashamed of yourselves, you ALL took an oath to protect our liberties, and this is not what that looks like."

Another resident humorously said, "I saw this in a movie once, it didn't end well for the citizens."

The comments go on and on, but the sentiment was overwhelmingly negative, and some even claimed the pandemic drone flights were unconstitutional.

The Westport Police Department got the message.

City grounds pandemic srone flights and pulls out of program

Following the critical social media reception, Westport PD quickly brought the pandemic drone flight concept in for a landing.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas announced the city was pulling out of the program. He posted that even though he did not agree with many of the comments, he does agree that trust between citizens and law enforcement is crucial: 

"I am always committed to bringing our community the most innovative solutions to the public safety problems that it faces. Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make."

He also reminded residents of the COVID-19 circumstances they face:

"It is a fact that the COVID-19 virus continues to spread through the global community, and therefore poses a serious and credible threat to us all now and in the future. In our steadfast commitment to public service, we remain honored to have been given an opportunity to assist in a pilot program which could someday prove to be a valuable lifesaving tool."

What do you think about pandemic drone flights? Are they a life saver or a privacy killer?