Violating Michigan social distancing orders? Big Brother may be watching.

Detroit police are monitoring hundreds of cameras placed throughout the city through the controversial Project Green Light program to spot people violating social distancing orders. Cameras at two Michigan shopping centers may soon measure the distance between customers as they stand in line to make their purchases, then display the data on a dashboard. (Shutterstock image)

In Detroit, police are monitoring security cameras outside convenience stores for crowds. In suburban Bloomfield Township, drones are hovering over golf courses and playgrounds to watch for large groups.

And when Michigan’s economy reopens after stay-at-home orders designed to slow the coronavirus pandemic, specialized cameras in some shopping centers will measure the distance between customers in checkout lines.

Does that make people uncomfortable? Sure, but such surveillance could be the cost of keeping the public safe once society reopens, said Quinn Munton, president and CEO of RE Insight, an Irvine, California-based company that is developing the shopping center surveillance system.

“The question,” Munton said, “is, do you cover your head in the sand, or say, ‘OK, we’re going to embrace this new normal?’”

Technology is expected to play a crucial role in tracking and combating the highly contagious virus until researchers develop a vaccine. And it’s prompting a familiar question: How much freedom are Michiganders willing to trade in exchange for increased safety? 

“The devil is in the details,” Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information who specializes in the societal impacts of digital technology. “If we’re going to use these technologies, we need to be very careful that they’re constrained specifically for the purposes of the pandemic, and not used for anything else.”

Lightening the load of medical workers

To some extent, spy work is the best response to a global pandemic.

Until a vaccine is widely available, public health experts say medical surveillance must play an important role in any plan to loosen the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions government leaders have enacted to confront COVID-19.

Absent continuing to limit people’s movement through stay-home orders, the best way to contain the virus is an aggressive effort to identify and isolate sick people. That requires widespread testing to locate virus carriers, coupled with “contact tracing” to find, quarantine and monitor anyone who has come into close contact with a carrier. Keeping them away from other people helps ensure they don’t unwittingly spread the virus. 

Meanwhile, precautions must be taken to ensure that healthy people don’t contract the virus when they venture out in public. Measures might include limiting the number of customers allowed inside stores to enable proper social distancing, taking employees’ temperatures before they enter the workplace, and asking bus riders to wear masks.

“There’s no such thing as zero risk,” said Joseph Eisenberg, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, “but these are things we can do to lower risk.”

Such efforts can be expensive and labor-intensive. According to one estimate, Michigan needs as many as 3,000 people to work as contact tracers during the pandemic. Technology can help reduce the burden, which is why one national plan for reopening the economy calls for the use of phone apps that track people’s movements and automatically notify them if they may have been exposed to a virus carrier. Apple and Google are both developing such technologies and plan to make them available to public health agencies. 

In Michigan, health officials have announced no plans to use phone tracking technology. But the state Department of Health and Human Services hopes to soon launch a voluntary “automatic tracing” system that will monitor people who have been placed in isolation or quarantine through daily text messages. If the patient reports worsening symptoms or other needs, a human contact tracer will follow up with a phone call.

Department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin called the system a “comprehensive solution that alleviates the need for additional staff.”

Monitoring social distancing

When Michigan’s retail stores are allowed to reopen, customers at Tel-Twelve Mall in Southfield and The Shops at Old Orchard in West Bloomfield Township, both in Oakland County, may encounter tablets at the door displaying messages that either welcome them inside or warn them not to enter, based on the number of people already inside. 

After customers finish shopping, overhead cameras can track whether they are maintaining the recommended six feet of social distance in the checkout line.

The goal is to help retailers comply with capacity limits intended to prevent the virus’ spread, and address any social distancing shortcomings the data might reveal, said Munton, CEO of one of two the companies behind the technology.

For instance, camera footage showing crowding at the checkout line might prompt store staff to ask people to spread out. The technology also is able to detect if shoppers have fevers, but if it’s unclear whether that feature will be used at Michigan shopping centers. 

“The tech solution is really to help [retailers] very economically get back to business,” Munton said, instead of, say, hiring someone to keep customer counts at the front door. 

Munton said pains have been taken to avoid potential privacy concerns. Data collected by the cameras doesn’t include any identifying information about customers, he said. He expects the technology to eventually be in use at dozens of properties owned by RTP Realty, the company that owns Tel-Twelve, the Shops at Old Orchard and seven other Michigan shopping centers. Munton said RE Insiht will soon pilot the technology with other clients in the hospitality and commercial sectors. 

In Detroit, cameras have been used to monitor crowds for years through Project Green Light, a crime-prevention partnership between police and nearly 700 businesses. 

It was already controversial before the pandemic, and the city’s April 3 announcement that it would use the cameras to monitor crowd sizes and enforce social distancing resurrected privacy concerns.

Launched in 2016, the program allows businesses to pay to have cameras installed outside their building (at an average cost of $4,000 to $6,000) and feed live footage to police headquarters. The cameras are equipped with green lights that alert passersby they’re being filmed. Separate facial recognition software can analyze still images from the cameras to help identify leads on violent crime suspects.

“Instead of spending money on this, I would maybe spend more money on programs to increase public education about the seriousness of this virus,” said Eric Williams, a lawyer with the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm. “If people are gathering in a crowd to celebrate a birthday, it’s probably because they didn't realize the seriousness of this problem.”

Detroit was one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus, and Mayor Mike Duggan announced the surveillance crackdown on one of the city’s worst days yet, with more than 700 new cases and 19 deaths. Since then, Detroit’s total death toll has risen to 1,108, with at least 9,424 people sickened.

In the next 24 days, police issued about 1,700 citations publishable by fines of up to $1,000 and 3,100 warnings for social distancing violations, police spokesperson Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said. It’s unclear how many originated from Project Green Light.

Detroit Police Capt. Aric Tosqui, who oversees the department’s crime intelligence unit, said Detroit police are taking a “humanitarian approach” to surveillance, and have only issued citations to people who refused police orders to disperse.

Some 20 miles north in Bloomfield Township, fire officials are using a donated drone to scan for crowds at golf courses, parks and school playgrounds, said Ryan Switala, the department's drone coordinator. 

So far, “residents are mostly in compliance” with the ban on group gatherings, said Switala, who added officials use the flights to increase outreach in problem areas. 

The surveillance equipment was donated by DJI Enterprise, the world’s largest drone manufacturer, which has also given them to the Battle Creek Police Department, Kent County Sheriff’s Office, and 40 other police, fire and public safety agencies across the country to use for COVID-19 response.

The drones are a “force multiplier,” said Romeo Durscher, director of public safety integration for the Chinese company. “They provide a department with the ability to get information much faster and in safer ways, and then also be quicker to respond.”

Durscher said the drones can also protect police and fire officials by enabling them to do their jobs without coming into physical contact with citizens who may be carrying COVID-19.

Officials in Battle Creek and Kent County told Bridge they won’t use the drones for COVID-19 surveillance. 

“I can’t think of anything more Orwellian than that,” Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker said, adding that the drones have yet to be taken out of their boxes.

    Toeing the line on legality and public opinion

    Tech-based public health surveillance is common in some countries. In China, for example, the government is using cell phone data to monitor the country’s population and rank residents according to their level of risk for COVID-19.

    Such surveillance is a tough sell in the United States, where people generally place a high value on individualism and civil liberties, said Toyama, the University of Michigan expert. But in a time of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, he said,  “the normal ethics of surveillance might not apply.” 

    Natalie Ram, an associate law professor at University of Maryland and a leading legal scholar on law enforcement surveillance, said public agencies that deploy tech surveillance to monitor or enforce social distancing are flirting with limits of the Fourth Amendment, which requires police to get warrants to search private property.

    The Supreme Court has extended Fourth Amendment protections to cell phone location data, but it’s unclear whether those protections apply to other technologies that capture data on people’s movements, such as cameras or drones.  

    In the context of a public health crisis like COVID-19, Ram said, the law likely permits using cameras and drones to spot groups and advise people to go home. 

    “But if they’re going out and arresting lots of people and then prosecuting them for violating social distancing requirements?” That’s where the law becomes murkier, Ram said.

    The easiest way for public agencies to avoid such legal and ethical gray areas, Toyama said, is to ensure that collected data doesn’t include personal information about the people captured on cameras or other surveillance technology, and that there’s a plan to dispose of the information once the pandemic ends. 

    “Anything that is put up for the sake of the pandemic, at the end of it, we need to take it down,” he said. 

    That’s what worries Williams, of the Detroit Justice Center. Project Green Light existed before COVID-19, and police have no plans to disable it afterward. 

    “Do you feel comfortable that once this crisis has passed,” Williams said, “the police are suddenly going to stop considering every gathering as being something we have to investigate?” 

    Detroit police officials, for their part, say concerns about privacy, civil liberties and abuse of technology are overblown.

    “I have yet to hear an argument,” said Tosqui, that isn’t “completely anecdotal.”


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    Tue, 05/05/2020 - 8:52pm

    And what if there is no vaccine coming about in the next 12+ months? Or if it doesn't carry it's effectiveness more than a season? These outcomes are more likely than we want to admit. Do we want some East German snitch filled 1984 world with big brother (sister) watching over us to keep us safe? Seems to many Bridge readers the answer is yes.

    Don't tread on me
    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:43am

    Yet we see "freedom fighting patriots" spitting on police, shooting and killing security guards, wiping their noses on employees, all at private businesses that want to be open, protect their employees and customers.

    These people want their freedom, but don't care about the freedom of others. Your freedom stops where mine starts, always has, always will.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 2:05pm

    'Freedom fighting patriots' were NOT spitting on police or doing any of those other things you mentioned. In fact, the guy supposedly yelling at a policeman in that one viral photo came forward to reveal he's actually a liberty loving pothead who was not armed and yelling at someone beyond the policeman - the red jacketed guy who dragged out a journalist from the House Gallery the day before. Images are so easy to be manipulated. And YOUR demand that we all stop living so YOU can feel safe (from a flu with a 99% survival rate) is beyond selfish. You are being used and Big Brother is very happy with your reply.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 2:13pm

    Arrest them! If that's what they're going,. No problem with it. But for some reason I don't get the idea that this is where you want to draw the line and instead you're thinking some sort of reeducation camp should be imposed?

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 6:17pm

    Antifa is acting up again?

    Dave N.
    Tue, 05/05/2020 - 11:02pm

    These are all fabulous ideas regarding surveillance. As opposed to tracing cell phones, let's get a micro-chip transponder implanted in every person, including newborns. Let's call this system BIGBRO and hey, we can even have the interior of our houses wired with cameras, so we can be monitored there as well. Then, we can indoctrinate our kids to spy on their parents if they commit "Mask-crime" and report them to the authorities. Wait a second, I remember a book called 1982 or 1983 or something along that lines that had all these great ideas...

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:49am

    Get used to it and be on your best behavior. The government didn't start it, but the government will use it. Businesses started by putting cameras everywhere in stores, parking lots, and then they started using "cookies" to follow us online. They follow all our children on their phones. They sell us doorbells with cameras.

    Tue, 05/05/2020 - 11:19pm

    Remember back when Democrats pretended to care about privacy rights and Big Brother and the right to work? The party has really changed from my youth- now the Democratic Party is the party that believes in spying on you, encouraging secret police to turn you in for violating rules from the executive, controlling what you can wear and when you can work, sees capitalism as evil, views race as a feeling and not as a reality, and believes that liberty is a duty to obey and not a right to misbehave.

    Oh, all of those things I just wrote above were paraphrasing from famous quotes by fascist Benito Mussolini.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:53am

    How is this a Democratic thing? I don't see either party protecting our privacy.

    Kevin Grand
    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 3:15am

    NOW people are concerned about their rights lost under the guise of "protecting" us from the Wuhan virus?

    The horses have long since left the barn.

    Speaking of losing rights, DJI Enterprise is a communist China-based company.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:57am

    You sound like one of those commie attorneys working at the ACLU.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:08am

    It is comforting to know the CEO of the company that sells surveillance equipment thinks this is all a good idea.

    Math Sux
    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:25am

    (Read this in Palpatine's voice)
    "...the formation of the First Wolverine Empire, for a safe, and secure society!"

    Ugh, is *this* what we will become? Do we want a Mayor DeBlasio snitch squad running this state or are we free? Don't answer that, we have lost too much for too long and there now exist too many people who believe more control is the answer. I am glad I am well into the back 9 of my life, nothing looks the same.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 9:33am

    A majority of these cameras use chinese software and chipsets.
    It appears that it may be possible to disable many of these lower grade cameras with a handheld high-power laser pointer - Not the wal-mart kind - These higher power ones that you get from... china!
    Someone needs to do an experiment with all of these china cameras to establish the damage threshold for their CCD's. It looks like a power density of 16kW/cm^2 (16 thousand watts across a 1cm square area) destroys a color CCD. Cameras like this use lenses so assuming that you can get a handheld that has has a narrow enough beam, and its beam is projected over 0.25mm^2 of the CCD after going through the lens, the math says it should take less than a 10W handheld unit, possibly only 5W would do it. This of course does not take into effect any attenuation by the camera lens itself. Can someone confirm this? Is it possible?

    Paul Jordan
    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 12:07pm

    The president seems to recently like invoking the memory of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, there was substantial loss of civil liberties. These were restored after the war, except in the defeated and occupied South.
    The social distancing requirements are NOTHING like the loss of liberty during the Civil War! In terms of requiring use to wear masks while shopping and maintaining six feet between ourselves and other people, the 'imposition' on our liberty is laughably small.
    If failing to wear masks or maintain distance didn't put others at risk, I'd have no objection to the protesters freely sharing the virus among themselves. After all, it would be your Right--right?
    The thing is, though, that flaunting these rules does put others at risk--including members of their families, the folks who work in the grocery stores where they shop, and medical staff who will have to treat those who become very sick. None of us has a 'right' to do that.
    Following social distancing rules (like the requirements for vaccination) is a matter of PUBLIC health.

    Alien on Earth
    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 12:31pm

    Tell me why I hear strange planes at night around 11 pm in Northern Michigan?

    Big Brother is a scared bro and we are tired of this guy. Don't ya have something better to do? We could work on creating a better world for all. Meanwhile... there are 50 cameras surrounding your home. Sounds like NWO.

    Thu, 05/07/2020 - 1:00am

    Check a site like FlightRadar24 . You should get tail numbers that you can simply look up on FAA or another tracking site like FlightAware. If they don't transmit tail number and all you get is hex code you can cross reference that on a site like Opensky's Aircraft Database or simply download the latest FAA dump in spreadsheet format and search for hex there. I would guess what you are hearing are loud single engine planes that are actually Cessan 208B or similar which are carrying Amazon packages from KGRR every day to all over northern lower peninsula and a few upper peninsula ares though I believe some of UP is supplied from wisconsin. IIRC the planes all leave within a relatively short window from KGRR and fly north, and split off towards their respective destination at the same waypoints every time.

    Probably not aliens, and you generally won't hear the actual surveillance flights due to the aircraft they fly and altitudes they fly at. Those are usually cessna skylane or stationair with a few oddball low speed bush type craft and will come up as registered to some oddball LLC that isn't real. Once in a while registered to a real individual, presumably rented/leased from that person. Takes some research to find them but those are more common around the city centers where they are doing surveillance in tandem with ground teams, usually drug related, I have tracked quite a few of them flying out of KPTK but don't have much data on operations "up north".

    There are also lists of known federal surveillance aircraft which can be found in the right places but once again it's very uncommon to see those planes away from the more metropolitan areas.

    IMO they don't really need to use planes to surveil people anymore when nearly every single person has a smartphone which sends their precise location to the cell towers 24/7 regardless of GPS being turned on, and which have microphones and cameras which can be remotely activated at any time by feds and "joint task forces" operating under blanket surveillance warrants. Devices which also sniff every wifi and bluetooth device around you and send that data straight to the big tech companies, feds, and whomever else wants it, on demand with no warrant. The planes are just used when they need video evidence of criminal dealings that are later used in court, they use use flash-memory-based high resolution video cameras and the footage is distributed to the surveillance team after each flight.

    Wed, 05/06/2020 - 6:16pm

    You'll never get me on any type of tracker and if you send a drone near me I'll shoot it down. Take that to the bank. Before you tell me my cell phone tracks me, I don't own a cell phone.

    Jay Buckley
    Fri, 05/08/2020 - 9:12am

    Donated CHINESE drones to spy on Americans? I will shoot the first one I see over my property out of the sky