Safety or surveillance: drones and the COVID-19 pandemic

I spoke with Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington who studies emerging tech and policy. He said it’s good that people are thinking creatively, but there is cause for concern. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ryan Calo: I think that the use of a drone is going to make people feel uncomfortable. The place I really think is problematic is trying to use drone technology coupled with artificial intelligence to try to figure out if people are far enough away from one another, or to try to figure out whether people are sick. While it might be technically lawful if you have the right license to do it, to use drones to keep people apart, that contributes to an already anxious environment. It can be a distraction, and especially I wouldn’t take it to surveillance.

Molly Wood: When you say drones that claim they can tell if people are sick, is this the thing where companies claim their drones can sense the body temperature of people they’re hovering over?

Calo: There’s no shortage of people out there selling technical snake oil at any time. These systems have already been deployed in places like grocery stores and airports. What these devices are detecting is unlikely, really, to correlate for what you’re looking for and is likely to lead to many false positives and negatives. Again, you already have a group of people who are anxious, who are concerned, and then to put some inscrutable flying robot in the mix just strikes me as profoundly unwise.

Read the full interview at Marketplace Tech