Westport grounds drone plans to fight coronavirus amid privacy concerns
WESTPORT — A first-of-its-kind program in Connecticut to use drone technology to monitor large gatherings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus has been grounded amid public opposition due to privacy concerns.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas said this week the town, which was an early epicenter in Connecticut for the virus, planned to launch the pilot program. However, public privacy concerns were raised by the Connecticut ACLU and a small group of protesters who gathered outside the police department on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Koskinas and First Selectman Jim Marpe said the town was not moving forward with the program since it was “not well-received.”
“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,” 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.”
Michael Picard, who was among the handful of those who publicly protested, said the use of drones could “lead to people being unnecessarily harassed.”
“The decision by the Westport Police Department to scrap their drone program is a victory for the people and civil liberties, especially in a time of overreach,” Picard said Thursday.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, was another vocal critic of the program. He said as the state copes with thousands of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the focus should not be on drones.
“We are not hearing a cry for new surveillance technologies,” he said. “The urgent need at the moment, according to public health experts, is to ramp up testing capability, suppress transmission through social distancing measures, and support our hospitals as they face an influx of patients.”
Westport had planned to partner with Dragonfly, a health care data service, to test the new technology. A spokesman for the company said Wednesday that Westport was the only Connecticut municipality to express interest in the program, while the company is working with other communities around the country.
Koskinas said he sees the benefit of the drone technology, but respects the concerns that have been raised.
“I am always committed to bringing our community the most innovative solutions to the public safety problems that it faces,” Koskinas said. “Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make.”