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COVID Sniffing Dogs: Quarantine Theater

“Security theater” is a phrase used to describe practices that give the illusion of improving physical security, but are in fact basically worthless. One example is the use of dogs – K-9 – to sniff for drugs, a tactic often used by police in drug trafficking cases to try to uncover the presence of drugs.

Radley Balko, a Washington Post columnist, has written extensively on the use and misuse of drug-sniffing dogs, noting that:

[N]arcotics-detecting dogs and their handlers aren’t very good at discerning the presence of illegal drugs. Multiple analyses of drug-dog alerts have consistently shown alarmingly high error rates — with some close to and exceeding 50 percent. In effect, some of these K-9 units are worse than a coin flip.

While dogs are capable of sniffing out drugs (or diseases), the handler – the human being working with the dog – has a great deal of influence over the dog. In the drug-sniffing scenario, handlers can sometimes intentionally or unintentionally prompt the dog to respond or “trigger,” and therefore give probable cause to conduct a search, even though the dog wouldn’t have otherwise alerted to drugs.

In addition, because dogs can’t speak and explain why they alerted, the human being handler – the law enforcement officer – is left to explain that the dog did alert, and that the dog alerted because the dog detected drugs. Where drugs are found, the discovery of drugs in some sense “proves” the handler’s claim. Where drugs are not found, the person is sent on their way with an apology for the inconvenience, and no subsequent courtroom testimony uncovers the error because the person is never charged with a drug trafficking crime.

Now CNN reports that dogs are being trained to help identify people with COVID-19. While a similar bias may not distort outcomes, it’s not entirely clear that COVID-sniffing dogs would be much more than security theater.

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