In April, as COVID-19 cases exploded across the U.S. and local officials scrambled for solutions, a police department in Connecticut tried a new way to monitor the spread of the virus. One morning, as masked shoppers lined up 6 feet apart outside Trader Joe’s in Westport, the police department flew a drone overhead to observe their social distancing and detect potential coronavirus symptoms, such as high temperature and increased heart rate.
According to internal emails, the captain flying the mission wanted to “take advantage” of the store’s line. But the store had no heads-up about the flight, and neither did the customers on their grocery runs, even though the drone technology managed to track figures both inside and outside. The drone program was unveiled a week later when the department announced its “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program” in collaboration with the Canadian drone company Draganfly, which was due to last through the summer.
But less than 48 hours later after the program’s public unveiling, the police department was forced to dump it amid intense backlash from Westport residents.
“To have my vitals monitored by drones without my knowledge of permission is beyond words,” wrote one alarmed resident in an email to the county government. “This is straight out of an Orwellian nightmare.”
The Westport Police Department is one of multiple law enforcement agencies across the country to have received a freebie from a drone company in attempts to combat COVID-19. An investigation by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation in collaboration with Slate shows how police departments in multiple states were loaned surveillance technology from foreign companies Draganfly and DJI, which sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to expand in the lucrative U.S. market. Emails obtained by FOIA requests show that agencies received drones fitted with thermal cameras and intercoms to disperse crowds, broadcast coronavirus information to homeless populations, and, in some cases, monitor health vitals. Other agencies have turned down DJI’s drone technology, speculating that the data was being sent back to China—a concern that piqued the FBI’s interest.
In emails discussing the proposed rollout of Westport’s drone program—which included missions to collect data from people outside grocery stores, commuters getting off a train, and people in the park—Draganfly and the police department agreed that distinguishing facial features would be blurred on the drone footage to “make the persons unrecognizable.” Even so, emails indicate that they were cautious of stating these capabilities in the press release announcing the program. A week before the partnership was announced, Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas wrote, “as long as we stay away from facial recognition and stay on top of rather than away from privacy issues we should be good.”
Yet despite the company’s commitment to blur the drone footage, its promotional videos are shot at very low altitudes in which you can clearly see individuals’ features. Indeed, Draganfly briefly used footage of the Trader Joe’s test in a promotional video. Furthermore, as Faine Greenwood wrote for Future Tense in May, Draganfly’s technology had only been tested in controlled, experimental settings—not real-world environments with moving people. There is no actual evidence that fever-detecting drones actually work. Emails indicate that the drone did pick up shoppers’ temperatures, though they don’t say anything about confirming the accuracy. The drone also couldn’t gauge heart or respiratory rates, as shoppers were wearing masks.
After the program was announced, in the face of harsh scrutiny, the company and police department rushed to remove the Trader Joe’s tape—parts of which were broadcast by local news—from the public domain. “We sent it to our shareholders and some media which we are trying to get back,” wrote Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell on April 21. “We are working to replace it all but inevitably some will still exist.”
Draganfly said the flight was conducted as an “autonomous ‘social distance measuring’ application only,” at a time when very little was known about how the virus was transmitted. The company told Slate the software was used to understand patterns “to allow officials to react quicker to ongoing or new potential health threats” and did not collect individualized data. The Westport Police Department declined an interview request, citing the April 23 press release that announced that, despite its commitment to bring its community the “most innovative solutions” to the public safety problems it was facing, the department would no longer participate in the program due to the “concerns” of citizens.
However, internal emails also suggest community outrage was not the only reason the program was ditched and that ultimately it may not have even been the police department’s decision. The assistant town attorney reviewed the drone’s insurance coverage after the program’s announcement, and CIRMA, the insurance company, expressed “concerns with privacy and HIPAA,” asking to review the contracts between the town of Westport and Draganfly “with particular regards to the data being collected and how it is being used, stored and transmitted.”
Before CIRMA’s review could even take place, and as the police department intended to modify the program to only monitor social distancing, the town’s leadership did a U-turn and decided to completely withdraw. “In this time when emotions are highly charged, we may need to pull back and assure people that ‘we have your backs,’ ” wrote Eileen Francis, the Selectmen’s Office manager, “and we are not going to show an inkling that we may infringe upon your civil liberties.” The administration’s office said the drone program was ultimately not utilized and declined to further comment.
Experts have also expressed fears of normalizing the use of increasingly enhanced surveillance systems by law enforcement. “This is another case in which technology is expanding police capability without full public discussion about whether we want that,” said Kentaro Toyama, professor of community information at the University of Michigan. “These are slippery slope types of technology.”
Draganfly wasn’t the only company to donate drones to law enforcement last spring. Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a Chinese-owned company and the largest seller of commercial drones in the U.S., launched its Disaster Relief Program in 2019 to quickly send drones to public safety agencies dealing with local emergencies such as tornadoes and floods. In April 2020, in response to the pandemic, DJI reinvented the program, inviting law enforcement agencies that were already registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to apply for additional drones to aid their coronavirus response. DJI said it received several hundred responses from police departments, as well as fire departments and state patrols, that hoped to implement COVID-19 programs to observe their county’s testing sites or reach their homeless populations using speaker-equipped drones. The company ultimately offered 100 Mavic 2 Enterprise drones to 45 agencies.
When some police departments did receive the drones, they found that they were not in fact free but instead loaned by DJI to try out and either be purchased or returned in 90 days, according to emails. DJI says some drones were loaned to departments and others were donated, depending on the agencies’ requirements.
However, after a select few departments made their new drone programs public and hit media headlines, community members and government officials responded with outrage. After a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee tweeted a link to an MSNBC story stating that the Chinese-made drones were used to “spy on and lecture Americans” about the coronavirus, DJI sent a note of encouragement to its clients.
“Obviously you and other public safety agencies which received drones through the DJI Disaster Relief Program are not using drones to ‘spy on and lecture Americans,’ ” wrote Romeo Durscher, then director of public safety integration at DJI, on April 21. “Presumably your agencies are not flying any missions which have any possible bearing on national security; instead, you are using drones in a transparent and responsible fashion, flying over areas with no geopolitical significance, in order to protect the health of your communities and yourselves.”
Slate has identified 16 police departments across the U.S. that received drones as part of the Disaster Relief Program, but the company denied a request for the full list of agencies participating. By May 1, agencies had flown 332 flights related to COVID-19 with DJI drones, according to internal emails. It remains unclear how many departments continue to use them for pandemic purposes.
However, some police departments had suspicions about data protections before even receiving their donation. After Jarrod M. Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, learned that law enforcement agencies in the state were to receive drone donations, he sent out a mass email to the state’s sheriff departments. “These drones are suspected to be ‘spy’ drones and may be collecting/reporting information to China,” Bruder wrote on April 22. “It’s sad to say, but donations in this day and time—even to law enforcement agencies—must be vetted thoroughly before we receive and implement the goods or services.”
DJI has been the subject of federal pushback for several years, and there have been multiple attempts to remove the company’s drones from U.S. law enforcement agencies’ fleets. Classified documents obtained through FOIA include warnings and memos from the FBI and Department of Defense on the national security risks of Chinese-made drones but do not specifically name DJI.
In early 2020, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the American Security Drone Act, which sought to ban federal departments and agencies from purchasing drones manufactured or assembled in counties named for national security concerns, including China. But in December the House and Senate rejected a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would have banned the purchase of Chinese drones by U.S. federal agencies.
Durscher’s email to reassure DJI’s clientele stated that photos, videos, and flight logs generated from the drones are not transferred to the company “unless you deliberately choose to do so.” But experts have pointed out that the potential for abuse is exacerbated by the lack of clear regulations surrounding drones in the U.S., particularly regarding the use of their surveillance capacities. “There is a risk that the data that is collected will be used in a certain way beyond its stated purpose,” said Jeramie Scott, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project.
DJI says that claims it improperly handles its data are “absolutely false” and are “narratives pushed for political reasons.” “Public safety agencies know to protect their data when using DJI drones,” said Adam Lisberg, corporate communications director at DJI. “They never have to put it on the internet or share with us. Nothing is automatically transferred to China.”
More recent emails show the FBI believed additional due diligence was needed. On April 20, a detective from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness emailed the Elizabeth Police Department asking for further details on the DJI drone donation and if the FBI could inspect the drones. “Any information regarding these drones is going to be put into a joint OHSP/FBI write up to advise various departments across the country on potential drawbacks to utilizing DJI products,” the email said.
The NJOHSP said there was no case or investigation into the DJI drones by the department but that “DJI has been publicly named by several government agencies as having potential vulnerabilities due to foreign ties.” (The FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations).
DJI said it stopped outreach for the program early in the summer as departments started sending back the drones, finding it “increasingly untenable” to continue operating due to the criticism surrounding DJI and questions about the safety of its data protection. “It’s very unfortunate because you have proven valuable technology which could help people,” Lisberg said. “It’s a damn shame.”
For some police departments, the drones were useful, helping to disperse crowds and facilitate outreach to their communities. In April, the Chula Vista Police Department in California—which has had a well-known “Drone as First Responder” program since 2018—received three drones from DJI that were used to provide COVID-19 information to homeless encampments. Department notes on the “key benefits” for drone use said the police department’s “very limited staff” would be “stretched thin” during the pandemic. In partnership with the county health department and homeless outreach team, the police department flew a speaker-equipped drone on two missions around encampments broadcasting announcements to direct people to hand-washing stations, social services, and shelter spaces. “This is a public health advisory,” the sample script read. “This is the Chula Vista Police Department. We are concerned about your safety due to the current pandemic.”
In emails, members of the department said the missions received a “tremendous response.” According to them, the two flights resulted in a total of 28 people coming to a “staging area” to receive COVID-related services such as a free health screening, free masks, and sanitation kits—and the first three-hour mission would have taken two days to provide the same service without drone support.
But homeless advocates have since expressed concerns about the obtrusive and dehumanizing nature of using drones as well as the potential to create further distrust between police and citizens. “The appropriate response here is not law enforcement,” said Megan Hustings, deputy director of National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s like flying a drone through someone’s window. It’s very scary, very invasive and very disrespectful.”
The Chula Vista Police said homeless advocates were not consulted on the program and that it made a “conscious decision” to utilize the drones to provide services to a hard-to-reach population while preserving the safety of its officers. “There was no intrusion into personal space,” said Capt. Don Redmond, who added that the drones were approximately 100 to 150 feet up, low enough so people could hear the speaker but high enough to avoid trees. The drones have not been used for pandemic purposes since, but the police department has not ruled out using them again in collaboration with the county health department.
However, other police departments, such as Battle Creek in Michigan, never even took their drones out of the box. “We initially thought it is one more tool in the toolbox if we need it,” Chief Jim Blocker of Battle Creek Police Department told Slate. “But throwing a drone in would be even more complicated and further disassociate us. It will be a sad day when you call 911 and a robot turns up at your door.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.