People in Western Australia may soon see more than birds in the sky, as the state’s police force have announced plans to deploy drones to enforce social distancing.
The drones will visit parks, beaches and cafe strips, ensuring people comply with the most recent round of gathering rules.
These measures may be difficult to rollback once the pandemic passes. And safeguards will be needed to prevent unwanted surveillance in the future.
The main game has been about control. China is using drones to enforce quarantine rules and deter gatherings that violate social distancing rules.
One viral video showed a drone scolding an elderly woman for not wearing a mask. In some cases, traffic police and municipal officials used drones fitted with speakers to order people home and break up mahjong games.
With high definition and infrared images streamed to command stations, China’s drones use facial recognition to identify specific individuals using its Social Credit System, and fine them for indiscretions.
This level of social control may be appealing in a pandemic that could cost millions of lives. But it could also have chilling effects on social and political life.
Surveillance tools typically work best for social control when people know they are being watched. Even in liberal societies, people might think twice about joining climate or racial justice protests if they know they’ll be recorded by a drone overhead.
Feeling like you’re constantly being watched can can create a kind of atmospheric anxiety, particularly for marginalised groups that are already closely monitored because of their religion or welfare status.
Putting more drones in the sky raises concerns about trust, privacy, data protection and ownership. In a crisis, those questions are often ignored. This was clear after 9/11, when the world learnt the lessons of surveillance systems and draconian national security laws.
Flying at high altitudes, drones can help police and other officials monitor large areas to identify those violating restrictions. Similar tactics are being used in Madrid and Nice, with talk of deployment in many other places.
Police in Australia are already deploying drones for various purposes, including at sporting events in Australia. Our defence force is buying Reaper MQ-9B drones because they are cleared for use in civilian airspace.
We might be fine with delivery drones in Canberra, or disaster drones ferrying urgent medical supplies, but how would we feel if they were indistinguishable from drones piloted by police, the military or private security companies?
A team at the University of South Australia is currently designing a “pandemic” drone to detect virus symptoms such as fever and coughing from a distance. Valuable as that is now, this tool could easily be used to intrusively manage the public’s health after the crisis is over.
It can be difficult to see the long term impacts of choices made in an emergency. But now is the best time for policymakers to set limits on how drones an be used in public space.
They need to write sunset clauses into new laws so that surveillance and control systems are rolled back once the pandemic eases, and create accountability mechanisms to ensure oversight.
By Michael Richardson, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW.
Parts of this article have been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Read the full, original article.
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