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A plan to use drones to detect COVID-19 in residents of Westport, Connecticut, was scrapped in 2020 over privacy concerns shortly after it was announced. A Westport Police Department spokesperson told PolitiFact the department is not using drones for this purpose.
An Instagram video suggests that residents in Westport, Connecticut, are currently being monitored via drone for COVID-19.
"A drone is scanning for COVID-19 symptoms," said footage in the Sept. 17 video posted on Instagram.
The post shows footage that appears to be from a news report about the drones — which were made by a company called Draganfly Inc. — that can detect when people are running a fever, sneezing or coughing. The footage is interrupted by a person holding a gun who says, "I’ll take it from here. Did you know your standard break barrel air rifle can remove a drone from the air? Consequently, I have a stuffy nose this morning and a Fourth Amendment right to privacy."
"Lines are being drawn," the post’s caption said.
This Instagram post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
There briefly was a pilot program early in the pandemic that would have used drones to monitor residents’ symptoms, but this post’s warning comes more than three years too late.
Westport’s police department in April 2020 announced it was participating in a test of a Draganfly program, in which drones equipped with sensors and "computer vision systems" could display a person’s temperature, heart and respiratory rates and detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds.
The drone did not employ facial recognition technology, would not be used in private yards and used anonymized data to help public health leaders understand patterns in the population. The pilot program’s first phase would have measured whether social distancing measures were being observed. Phase two would have included monitoring for health symptoms, but the project never made it that far in Westport.
Soon after it was announced, residents and organizations, including the ACLU’s Connecticut branch, opposed the plan over privacy concerns.
Two days after the police department announced the program, it scrapped the plan.
"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 an April 23, 2020, news release. "We heard and respect your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and reconsidering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol."
Arian Hopkins, a Draganfly spokesperson, said the Westport police currently are not using the company’s drones to identify people with COVID-19 or for other uses. The technology also was not used by any other city to identify COVID-19 symptoms, Hopkins said.
Lt. Eric Woods, a Westport Police Department spokesperson, told PolitiFact he’s "not sure why this is coming up today, but no we do not use drones for this purpose."
We rate the claim that in Westport, Connecticut, "drones are "scanning (people) for COVID-19 symptoms" False.
Arian Hopkins, spokesperson for Draganfly, email exchange, Sept. 18, 2023
Lt. Eric Woods, spokesperson for the Westport Police Department, email exchange, Sept. 18, 2023
Westport Police Department, news release, Westport Police Department testing new drone technology "Flatten the Curve Pilot Program", April 21, 2020
Westport Police Department, news release, Westport Police Department statement on drone pilot program, April 23, 2020
NBC News, Connecticut town reverses course on 'pandemic drones' amid privacy concerns, April 23, 2020
ACLU, Statement regarding Westport drone COVID-19 pilot program, April 22, 2020
Draganfly Inc., ‘Pandemic Drone’ Conducts Initial Flights Near NYC to Detect COVID-19 Symptoms, April 21, 2020
Venture Beat, How Draganfly brought a ‘pandemic drone’ to the U.S., April 30, 2023
The Verge, Social-distancing detecting ‘pandemic drones’ dumped over privacy concerns, April 23, 2020
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