Police use of drones in U.S. likely to start privacy debate

Law enforcement in the United States has been quietly using aerial drones in a domestic capacity. The Texas Department of Public Safety has deployed them more than any other local or state agency.

The Washington Post had a detailed story on Sunday that described a high-risk operation in Austin, Texas in 2009 where a drone was used. Officials involved in that event talked about it for the first time publicly in The Post’s article. They approved of the fact that it allows them to observe things with a whole new level of secrecy.


“The nice thing is it’s covert,” said Bill C. Nabors Jr., chief pilot with the Texas DPS. “You don’t hear it, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.”


The Department of Defense claims that the drone technology has revolutionized warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is slowly taking its place in the national airspace.


Pilotless aircraft are keeping watch over the border with Mexico, looking for missing people over rugged terrain, flying into tropical storms to collect data, taking pictures of accidents and monitoring the spread of forest fires.


The operation in Austin foreshadowed what might end up as one of the most wide-reaching and unpopular uses of unmanned drones, a new and rather cheap spy tool in domestic law enforcement.


Currently the use of drones for law enforcement tasks is rare. The Federal Aviation Administration, who controls national airspace, requires that the few police departments that have drones need to ask for emergency authorization if they wish to use one in a real operation. Because the FAA is worried about safety risks, it only gives permission occasionally.


But don’t feel relief yet because by 2013 the FAA expects to have made new laws that would allow cops across the nation to regularly  use lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground, high up enough for them to be unseen, ever watching eyes in the sky.


This technology could allow police departments to film the actions of the public below with high definition, infrared and thermal cameras.


One maker is already advertising one of its small units as an ideal tool for “urban monitoring.” The military, who is often a first user of technologies that enter the civilian realm, is ready to deploy a system in Afghanistan that will be capable of scanning an area the size of a small city. And the most advanced robotics on the drones use artificial intelligence to locate and record specific types of suspicious activity. That’s right, AI is going to be used to seek out unapproved behavior and record it in Afghanistan, and that technology will eventually make its way here.


And when the drones come home to roost in American communities they will certainly spark new debates about the boundaries of privacy. The power of some of the cameras that can be attached to them is likely to generate fresh search-and seizure cases for the courts, and the worries about the technology’s impending misuse could anger the public.


“Drones raise the prospect of much more pervasive surveillance,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “We are not against them, absolutely. They can be a valuable tool in certain kinds of operations. But what we don’t want to see is their pervasive use to watch over the American people.”    


The police are most likely going to be using drones in tactical operations and to view public areas. Legal experts are saying that they will have to first obtain a warrant before they can spy on private homes.

My take:

It is only a matter of time before these drones make their way over here to the states. It will start slow but eventually the government will probably make it easier for police stations across the country to buy their drones from the government’s favorite dealers.

It’s not if these drones will be abused by law enforcement, it’s when. Law enforcement has a history of using FLIR cameras to spy on “suspected” criminals illegally, without a warrant. It’s naïve to think that these drones won’t be routinely used to illegally spy on civilians. Once the FAA gets that law passed around 2013, it will be open season to use drones to keep the masses in control.

Why use regular old fashioned law enforcement when you can just use the eye in the sky to locate “suspicious behavior” and swoop in on the subject before they can commit a heinous crime?

I guess you don’t even have to be suspected of committing a crime to be a target for surveillance. Now your public behavior is going to be constantly put under the drones’ microscopes and if you don’t exhibit the proper behavior, you will be dealt with accordingly.