Connecticut town drops drone program to combat COVID-19 spread over privacy concerns

Drones chasing people around during a worldwide pandemic to determine if they’ve been infected with the coronavirus seemed too much like something out of a sci-fi movie, fraught with privacy and security concerns, for a Connecticut town that joined, then quickly ditched its plans to participate in, the Draganfly drone Flatten the Curve program.

“In our good faith effort to get ahead of the virus and potential need to manage and safely monitor crowds and social distancing in this environment, our announcement was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said in a statement. “We heard and respect your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and re-considering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol.”

In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the Westport Police Department had planned to test the drones to enforce social distancing and to detect fever or coughing from up to 190 feet away. But those plans troubled citizens and privacy experts alike.

“Like other Internet of Things (IoT) devices, drones currently have very poor security controls, making them vulnerable to hijacking. Commercial drones provide a fresh privacy concern as they begin to store sensitive information on board,” said Steve Durbin, managing director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). “The majority will be fitted with cameras or a range of sensors, collecting information such as GPS location, credit card numbers, email addresses or physical addresses. This type of data will certainly be a major target for attackers over the coming years.”

As the pandemic has washed over the world, local, state and federal governments have turned to technology to augment efforts to quash it. In some cases officials have signaled that they would be willing to soften privacy strictures for the greater good of protecting public health.

“We live in a day and age of technological sophistication where compromises around an individual’s privacy are both more prevalent as well as more actionable, for good for ill; both the precedents set for such compromises, and the data that they produce will be very long lived,” said Tim Wade, technical director, CTO Team at Vectra, who contended there are cases where “compromises are essential to the public good.” 

But Wade warned that society must culturally be “extremely careful about the trade-offs we make, as the erosion of privacy is an erosion of both liberty and equality – if we are not deliberate, intentional, and thoughtful in this new world we will find ourselves less safe, less free, less equal.”

“Organizations should determine how drones are likely to be used across the business and incorporate business continuity arrangements should these drones be disrupted and regularly update or patch drones,” Durbin urged organizations to “determine how drones are likely to be used across the business and incorporate business continuity arrangements should these drones be disrupted and regularly update or patch drones” and “apply specialized technical controls such as signal jamming, geofencing and hardening Wi-Fi and protect locations from drone spying by installing blinds and curtains, mirrored windows or white noise generators.”

Ultimately, drone makers must commit to incorporating security features into their products “and keep up to date with future legal and regulatory requirements, considering that they may differ or conflict across jurisdictional boundaries,” he said.

Under the Draganfly Flatten the Curve program, Ken Vedaa, principal consultant at the Crypsis Group, said “the drones are pulling anonymized data in aggregate about health and social distancing—data which appears not to be attributable to specific individuals.” Given specified the specified scope, “it is not likely to be much of a privacy issue if used as outlined (limited purpose, with only limited, specific data gathered on individuals, and for a limited time),” he said. “Where citizens will want to be vigilant is monitoring programs like these for time, scope and use extensions that go beyond the original intent.”

Other countries, including China and Ghana, have used drones to battle the spread of COVID-19.

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