News & Politics

Big Brother in the Sky: New Jersey Police Use Chinese Drones to Enforce Social Distancing

Twitter screenshot.

Police in Elizabethtown, N.J., are using drones to spy on citizens in areas patrol cars cannot reach. Authorities claim the drones are not taking pictures or collecting evidence, but failure to comply with their orders could lead to a summons or $1,000 fine. Even worse, the drones come from a Chinese company that sent similar drones across the country — and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has warned that data collected on these Chinese-owned drones could be compromised and sent back to Beijing.

“The drones make it easier for police to see into certain areas where access by patrol cars is more difficult. That includes tight spaces between buildings, behind schools, and backyards,” an MSNBC anchor explained in a segment on Friday. “Failure to comply could lead to a summons or a thousand dollar fine.”

“It’s just an invasion of your privacy,” a local man told MSNBC.

J. Christian Bollwage, the city’s mayor, responded to the criticism by insisting that the drones could save lives.

“My answer to those people is, ‘If these drones save one life, it is clearly worth the activity and the information that the drones are sending,'” Bollwage said.

“The drones, donated by DJI, a Chinese company, have gone to 43 agencies in 22 states, all to help enforce social distancing rules,” MSNBC reported. “Authorities say the drones aren’t taking pictures or collecting evidence. It’s a high-tech warning against a daily virus.”

Elizabeth Harrington, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party, shared a video of the segment.

“US using Chinese drones to spy on and lecture Americans about a virus caused by communist China,” she tweeted.

DHS warned that Chinese-made drones may be sending sensitive flight data back to their manufacturers in China, where the Communist Party-dominated government can access it. The DHS sent an alert last May warning about the drones, almost a year before American mayors decided to use DJI drones to enforce social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus.

According to CNN, nearly 80 percent of the drones used in the U.S. and Canada come from DJI, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, China.

“The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access,” the alert stated. “Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities.”

DJI insisted that it gives customers “full and complete control over how their data is collected, stored, and transmitted,” adding that “customers can enable all the precautions DHS recommends.”

“At DJI, safety is at the core of everything we do, and the security of our technology has been independently verified by the U.S. government and leading U.S. businesses,” DJI added.

Even if DJI drones do not send data back to China and the Chinese Communist Party, the fact that American mayors are using drones to enforce social distancing measures is creepy. Are drones really necessary to make sure that people aren’t congregating in groups of ten or more? Are drones really necessary to make sure that people are washing their hands?

Even the Elizabethtown police’s statements about the drones are contradictory. If police can deliver a summons or issue a $1,000 fine by drone, how are the drones not collecting evidence? Police need to have evidence to prove guilt in order to levy fines.

Americans need to commit themselves to fight the spread of the coronavirus, but governments have taken extreme measures in the name of preserving public health and safety. Mendocino County, Calif., has banned singing during livestream church services in the name of fighting the coronavirus. A Democratic mayor in the Bible Belt banned drive-in church services where parishioners remain in their cars with their windows up, in the name of stopping the spread of the coronavirus. At one drive-in church service, police slapped $500 fines on attendees, forcing them to roll down their windows to receive the tickets.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed many petty tyrants, and it has seemingly made law enforcement comfortable with using Chinese-made drones to spy on citizens in a practice eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother is watching you, but don’t worry — it’s for your own good.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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