One US city is deploying a Chinese firm’s drones to police Americans who are not social distancing
Chris White on April 18, 2020
- Elizabeth, New Jersey Mayor J. Christian Bollwage is deploying a Chinese company’s drones to help police people who violate social distancing mandates.
- The drones will help police officers enact fines as high as $1,000 on people who are not keeping their distance amid a global pandemic that has killed tens of thousands in the United States.
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement warned in 2017 that the drones are collecting information on crucial U.S. infrastructure and the U.S. Army has banned their use.
Elizabeth, New Jersey, is using a Chinese company’s drones to police citizens who fail to employ social distancing guidelines. Past reports suggest the drones are feeding China data.
Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage is deploying drones from Chinese-based company DJI to warn Elizabeth citizens who are walking outdoors not to get too close in physical proximity to other people. The drones blare sirens and issue this warning: “Stop gathering, disperse and go home.”
Bollwage is dismissing critics of his approach.
“If these drones save one life, it is clearly worth the activity and the information that the drones are sending,” the mayor said Friday in an MSNBC interview.
New Jersey is considered a coronavirus hotspot — more than 3,000 in the state have died from the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, before skipping across the globe and landing in the United States, where it has killed more than 30,000 people. The drones might not be benign.
Past reports suggest DJI poses a substantial security threat to U.S. infrastructure.
A 2017 memo from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau said officials had “moderate confidence” that DJI’s commercial drones are giving critical U.S. “infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”
The memo cited first- and second-hand anonymous sources inside the drone industry. ICE has not responded to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment about the memo, which was initially reported in November 2017 by The New York Times.
The memo also stated that officials had “high confidence the company is selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within these sectors to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.” The U.S. Army banned the use of all DJI drones in 2017, citing “cyber vulnerabilities.”
DJI is dismissing ICE’s claims and said the company gives full control over the drones to the users.
“We debunked the claims in the NYT article a long time ago. We hired a firm to investigate the claims. If you want to share the data, then you can. But if you want to keep it to yourself, then you can.” Adam Lisberg, corporate communications director for DJI, told the DCNF. “DJIs don’t perform facial recognition, period.”
DJI’s app offers an automatic function to store data, which can be turned off if the user dives into a series of settings.
DJI donated drones to 43 agencies in 22 states to help enforce social distancing, MSNBC reported. The donations are part of DJI’s “COVID-19 US Disaster Relief Program,” which provides cities access to the drones for the purpose of surveilling populations during the pandemic.
Elizabeth City Policy is also trying to provide more context to the drone’s usage.
“All its [sic] doing is spreading an automated notice about social distance. No recording or pictures are taken, just a tool of encouragement to follow the rules,” the Elizabeth City Police Department noted in an April 8 tweet.
The tweet came after the police department wrote a Facebook post the same day that contained a more dire warning.
“These drones will be around the City with an automated message from the Mayor telling you to STOP gathering, disperse and go home,” the post noted before issuing a warning that violating the policies subjects them to potential $1,000 fines. “You have been advised.”
Elizabeth City Hall spokesperson Ruby Contreras told the DCNF that officers “are not directed to fly over private property,” and that police officers “will give a summons” if people do not heed a drone’s warnings. The technology does not collect facial recognition data from people they warn, she added.
China is employing similar techniques to get ahead of the pandemic. Many of China’s roughly 300 million surveillance cameras contain facial recognition technology, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told The Wall Street Journal in March.
The cameras give authorities the ability “to track who specifically has gone to which precise location,” Richardson said. “It’s another way for the government to gather large amounts of information about people, really, without their consent, and in some cases, without their knowledge.”
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