Recently, pedestrians crossing a bustling intersection in Shuyang, a city in northern China, found themselves being scolded by a police-operated drone equipped with a camera and loudspeakers. Their mistake was neglecting to wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus, which has killed at least 427 people and infected more than 20,000 worldwide, most of them in China’s mainland.
A video posted to Twitter by the Global Times, a jingoistic Chinese government tabloid, on Friday shows clips of bewildered passersby jerking their heads to the sky upon hearing a disembodied voice harassing them about their hygiene. A policewoman yelling through the drone’s loudspeaker quips, “Hey, handsome guy speaking on your mobile, where is your mask?” and later instructs a group of “pretty young ladies” to wait until they get home to eat so they won’t have to lower their masks. Another portion of the video shows a social media star using a drone to bark similar orders at senior citizens out and about in China’s Inner Mongolia province. The video, which has amassed 1.64 million views, resembles a montage from a prank show—except the camera isn’t hidden. It’s prominently displayed to remind people that someone’s always watching.
China has been using drones, some of which are disguised as birds, on a mass scale since 2016 to track down fugitives, catch people making traffic infractions, monitor students taking college entrance exams, and surveil the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, particularly for illegal border crossings. The country is now mobilizing its drone apparatus for a variety of heavy-handed initiatives in an attempt to contain the coronavirus, particularly in rural areas where there are fewer hospitals and means of publicly communicating health information. The outbreak may in fact be giving the government cover to be even more intrusive in its use of drones and other surveillance technology. The Global Times, though, praised the initiatives as “creative” and suggests that the resulting videos from the drones have “cheered up Chinese netizens who have not been able to indulge in outdoor entertainment events this Spring Festival [Chinese New Year celebration] because of the coronavirus.”
A number of videos similar to the one that the Global Times posted have gone viral on Chinese social media, showing drones not only telling people to don their masks—which, for the record, won’t really do all that much to stop the spread of the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—but also clearing out public gathering places that may act as a nexus for transmission of the disease. A clip that has been making the rounds on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, shows a drone breaking up a mahjong game in a village near Chengdu, which has prohibited residents from playing the game outside. In the video, the official manning the drone tells a boy, “Don’t look at the drone, child; ask your father to leave immediately.”
Beyond just cajoling people to stay inside and wear masks, there have also been reports in local media outlets of the government using drones to facilitate medical inspections, according to the South China Morning Post. Officials have started using drones in the southern city of Zhongshan to monitor how hospitals are disposing of the multiple tons of medical waste they produce every day, and also in Shanghai to inspect traffic stops where drivers have been getting their temperature checked. A local leader in the eastern Jiangxi province has even claimed to be flying drones with infrared cameras from house to house to measure peoples’ temperatures so that human inspectors don’t have to get in contact with the sick. The Chinese government has been known to rely on drones equipped with this technology to detect heat emitted by people hiding out in the countryside in Xinjiang, but it’s unclear whether the sensors are sophisticated enough to actually diagnose a fever.
Reports from around the country further indicate that drones are covering cities and villages with disinfectant spray. The Chinese agricultural technology country XAG claims that it was able to disinfect an area of more than 300,000 square meters in less than four hours and announced on Friday that it is setting up a fund of 5 million yuan (about $710,000) for communities that want to launch such operations. According to the company, the disinfectant is effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus via contaminated surfaces and particularly useful for making sure that vehicles traveling to areas with known cases of the virus don’t end up bringing it back home.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, notes that citizens don’t have legal recourse to challenge how drones are operated in the country. That’s why the government feels free to use them in increasingly invasive ways that are likely unnecessary for addressing the public health crisis. The WHO in fact has guidelines for public health surveillance that dictate, in part, that such measures should be proportionate to the risk at hand, which does not seem to currently be the case in China. “The government, while trying to protect people from the harms of a public health situation, should also not encroach on other human rights,” she says. “The use [of drones] is neither effective nor necessary nor proportionate.”
Drones are also only one component of a larger effort by the Chinese government to exert an unprecedented level of control over citizens’ movements and activities in a draconian attempt to address the coronavirus. Besides quarantining the 11 million-person city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, the government has also forced people in other provinces to submit to temperature checks when arriving and leaving certain areas, to log health-related information with QR codes, and to stay in inside—some cities are only letting a single member of a family leave once every two days to retrieve food. Penalties for failing to abide by the instructions can be stiff: Police recently arrested a woman at a Shenzhen market for refusing to wear her mask.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.