Cops Using Pandemic as Excuse to Ramp Up Drone Surveillance

By: jprivate

All across the country, law enforcement is using the pandemic as an excuse to use Chinese-made drones to monitor the public.

This breaks every promise law enforcement has ever made regarding the use of drones. (More on that later.)

A recent Miami Herald article revealed how police are using Chinese-made DJI drones to monitor the homeless and check people’s temperatures.

“Last month, police departments in Daytona Beach and Connecticut unveiled what was initially touted as a potential new tool against a pandemic: drones capable of taking a person’s temperature from 300 feet in the air.”

The article, written by Charles Rabin, said that both agencies stopped using thermal imaging drones after civil liberty groups warned that police drones have essentially become “Big Doctor” in the sky.

A person’s health information is protected under federal law thus posing the question,  “Are drone readings, even with sophisticated infrared sensors, a trustworthy way to protect public health without violating individual rights?”

But none of that matters to American law enforcement. In Florida, the Daytona Police Department has found a way to justify using drones to check a person’s health.

“But after public backlash, Westport police killed the plan before it was activated. And police in Daytona Beach clarified that the technology hasn’t been used to seek out random fevers in public spaces. Daytona Beach Police spokesman Messod Bendayon conceded the drone had been used but not to search public spaces for random fevers.”

The Daytona Police Departments’ justification for using drones is intentionally misleading. Either police are using thermal imaging drones on the public or they are not. There is no middle ground when it comes to using drones to invade the public’s privacy.

An article in the Daytona Beach Journal revealed just how misleading the Daytona Police Department has been about using drones to monitor the marginalized.

“When the homeless do gather in groups, the police department’s drones have swooped in to ask them to disperse, Buck James, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries said. 

A comment made by Tom Sherick, who’s been homeless in Daytona Beach on and off for six years, was a little more revealing. “Sometimes people driving by will see you and give you food, but the cops try to shut it down,” Sherick said.

Ask yourself, could the police also be using drones to monitor motorists who stop to feed the homeless?

According to a recent article in The Appeal, the Miami Police Department has arrested 30 percent of the homeless population for not practicing social distancing and breaking curfew.

“On March 27, Miami area officers arrested two homeless men for unlawfully using a dairy crate—a Florida law that effectively allows police to arrest homeless people for sitting.”

In the seven weeks since Miami-Dade County issued its stay-at-home order, the police have arrested 3,526  homeless people.

The COVID-19 excuse to target the homeless and invade our privacy appears to be in full swing as police use drones to warn people to social distance.

As USA Today explains people have a right to privacy.

“People have a right to privacy. You can’t just take their temperature without any reason. I think this is just an example of something that police departments have a tendency to do. Someone sells them on a new technology and they can come up with what they think is reason to use it and they use it, but they don’t necessarily think about how invasive it might be,” said Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance. 

Earlier, I mentioned that law enforcement broke every promise they ever made about using drones except during an emergency.  For years, law enforcement defined what constituted an emergency as a ‘search and rescue, hostage situation, missing child or adult, remote crime scenes, incidents involving hazardous materials, monitoring crowds at large events and collision documentation’.

Not once in their millions of promises to the public, did law enforcement try and justify using thermal imaging drones to scan everyone. (A Google search for “police promise drones only used in an emergency” returned a staggering 4.3 million hits.)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) posted some interesting thoughts about allowing police to use thermal imaging drones.

“We’d want guarantees that such drones are part of a temporary public health approach to social distancing, and not a permanent criminal justice approach to gatherings in public places. For example, there would need to be guidelines that would only allow public health officials, rather than law enforcement, access to the drones.”

As laudable as EFF’s efforts are, it is hard to see anyone stopping the tidal wave of fear that has gripped America during this pandemic.

As I mentioned last month, it is only a matter of time before police drones and CCTV cameras are turned into heartbeat measuring monsters.

“The new model will have several advanced features to the typical infrared cameras that are currently being used to measure body surface temperature. The VSBLTY-Photon-X cameras will additionally measure heartbeat and oxygen saturation levels with the goal of helping to produce less false positives than the standard infrared cameras now in use.”

EFF also revealed how law enforcement is using the pandemic as an excuse to increase public surveillance.

“No government agencies should use this moment to purchase new drones, which ensures that agencies would find excuses in the future to use the drones for other purposes, in order to justify the initial expense. We don’t want more government drones flying over concerts and rallies in the not-so-distant future.”

The fight to keep our privacy is a never-ending battle against government and corporate interests that want to know everything about everyone.


Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

Currently, at least 19 states—Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin—require law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances to obtain a search warrant to use drones for surveillance or to conduct a search.