Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 continue ramping up, providing new opportunities for states to unleash advanced surveillance technologies on the public.
In Hawaii this year, the Honolulu Police Department employed a robotic dog from the company Boston Dynamics to patrol and monitor a homeless community. Equipped with cameras, two-way communication, artificial intelligence, and autonomous data collection capabilities, the robot scans eyes to detect for fevers — which could signal a person has COVID-19 — and interviews those who have tested positive.
Lt. Joseph O’Neal from the Honolulu Police Department publicly supported the use of the robot dog at a media demonstration. He stated, “A person will ask for food. They will ask for water. They’ll ask for masks. These were all things that we had to do face to face with someone, and we could facilitate through the robot. And that was the reason for it.”
He also downplayed human rights concerns, claiming, “Ours is pure humanitarian, and we have not had a single person out there that’s said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome.’ It’s more of a positive interaction. In no way is it intimidating.”
Citizens from New York felt otherwise when the Boston Dynamics robot was released in the city late last year. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. It felt surreal … It scared me,” stated NYCHA President of the Resident Association Melanie Auchello, who witnessed the robot respond to a domestic dispute at the public housing complex.
Several New York politicians also spoke out when videos of the robot were released on social media. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) noted the robot’s dystopic quality, stating, “This is some Robocop stuff. This is crazy.” Following pushback against the department, the NYPD returned the dog to Boston Dynamics and terminated its $94,000 contract.
According to Techstory, Boston Dynamics worked with the Pentagon and DARPA during its early years to research robot development for military use, but more recently Boston Dynamics has released robots to governments in other countries.
A robotic dog from Boston Dynamics patrolled a park in Singapore last year, using a camera to allow its controllers to observe park-goers from a remote location. It also played a pre-recorded message to visitors, reminding them to social distance: “Let’s keep Singapore healthy. For your own safety and those around you, please stand at least one meter apart. Thank you.”
The robot was initially used as part of a two-week trial to help manage social distancing, but the Singapore government has since escalated the use of surveillance robots to patrol shopping centers to monitor “undesirable social behaviors like flouting COVID-19 safety measures (not wearing masks), smoking in forbidden locations, and incorrect bicycle parking.” The Singapore government has claimed the robots are helping address a labor shortage by reducing the number of officers required for foot patrol.
Although resistance against policing robots is more pervasive in the United States, labor shortages and vaccine mandates continue to impact labor markets and police departments across the nation.
Expansion of artificially intelligent surveillance technologies could become more appealing to curb the spread of COVID-19, but during a discussion on “The Ethics of Surveillance Technology during a Global Pandemic,” Carr Center Fellow and Professor of Law Vivek Krishnamurthy warned they’ll be difficult to scale back once employed:
My longer-term concern is that measures that are enacted to fight a crisis tend to become the “new normal” after the crisis has passed. We saw this in the U.S. with the vast expansion in government surveillance powers enacted after September 11, pursuant to laws that remain on the books nearly twenty years later. If past is precedent, then I fear that many of the new surveillance tools that have been deployed to fight the coronavirus are going to be with us well after the virus is vanquished.