Privacy SOS

Drones for all! Or maybe just police?

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There might not be guns in the skies above the United States just yet, but recent media and policy reports suggest we are about to witness an explosion in domestic law enforcement use of drones to surveil the US population. An ACLU report released last week highlights some of the major policy questions that need to be addressed before police drones invade our airspace. Essentially, the authors recommend that legislatures enact statutes and police institute clear operations guidelines restricting drone surveillance by applying Fourth Amendment protections and ensuring that video data of ordinary people isn't kept in a massive database somewhere in Virginia. 

Not so fast: procedural policymaking and surveillance technologies
Law enforcement in the United States has been acquiring and using the latest surveillance technologies without the attendant public policy discussions true democratic participation would require. This has led to what Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU and co-author of the drone report, calls "procedural policymaking." That is, instead of police officers opening a conversation with communities and state legislatures about the latest police surveillance tools, instead of openly debating policies governing the use of such technologies and coming to conclusions that both protect privacy and enable legitimate law enforcement use, police have simply purchased the tools and used them. Often the money for these technologies comes from the DOJ or the DHS, further alienating the policed public from the process guiding their police department's policymaking.
It is a crisis in governance and all signs suggest it is getting worse.
But drones might just be the straw that breaks the "procedural policymaking" camel's back. While many other invasive technologies have slipped under the radar of high level media attention, drones, perhaps because the weaponized models are used widely in the CIA's covert wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, are getting their fair share of media attention as they swarm to police departments near you.
Drones come home

DHS recently announced that it is seeking bids from contractors to build the agency what it calls a Wide Area Aerial Surveillance System (WAASS) for use in the 'homeland'. The call for proposals describes the system DHS desires:

The surveillance system shall have an electro-optical capability for daylight missions but can have an infrared capability for day or night operations. The sensor shall integrate with an airborne platform for data gathering. The imagery data shall be displayed at a DHS operations center and have the capability for forensic analysis within 36 hours of the flight.

Last year Congress approved $32 million for the DHS drone program. According to Networked World, DHS "says that the goal is to have a system mostly operating from Predator unmanned aircraft that can offer surveillance of humans, vehicles, and other targets of interest to DHS's operational components." The agency hopes to acquire 10 drones in the near future, with possible expansion to up to 24 in coming years.

Yet other government agencies are thinking bigger. DHS' plans look at little amateur compared to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) stated ambitions to build and deploy a spy satellite capable of recording video surveillance of giant swaths of the earth from space. 


But it isn't just DHS or the military that are seeking to expand their aerial surveillance of us little earthlings. Salon's Glenn Greenwald reported earlier this month on the expansion of domestic drone use by local police agencies; that article is really worth reading from beginning to end. In it, he describes the aggressive lobbying campaigns drone manufacturers are waging to expand their market from military use overseas into the domestic realm here at home, and the open arms with which local police departments are receiving the drone propaganda.

Drone journalism and occucopters?

In November 2011, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln created a media storm when it announced the establishment of what it calls a 'Drone Journalism Lab'. The lab will provide an environment wherein "students and faculty will build drone platforms, use them in the field and research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism." Given that there are no legal restrictions governing the use of drones in the US (absent FAA airspace requirements), the Drone Journalism Lab, like DHS and local police departments, is treading on ground littered with potential privacy problems.

On the one hand there are occupy livestream journalists like Tim Pool, who hope to use small drones to fight back against police repression of media at demonstrations. But given the recent phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's tabloid empire in the UK, citizens should be wary not only of police but also of journalists who want to deploy drones to spy report on the public. 

The fundamental question is the same regarding drone journalism and drone policing. Will we wait until a smoking gun privacy violation jolts our policy makers into action, or will we act now to prevent a privacy crisis before it starts?

If police, federal law enforcement and our elected representatives continue along the path they've charted related to surveillance technologies, we don't have much hope. But as with other surveillance technology crises we face, elected officials are foolish if they think they can't become victims of the tools used to control the rest of us. Blackmail in the digital age is more real and dangerous than ever. How long will it be until we see photos of high-level politicians in their backyards printed in the papers, taken surreptitiously from drones high in the sky? 

What policy makers and the general public must remember is that police shouldn't have the right to use drones or any other surveillance technology absent commonsense rules restricting surveillance of everyday activities not associated with crimes. It isn't enough to simply restrict the public's use of drones, to limit embarrassment to elected officials from drone journalism gone wild. The public deserves the same protections from our government. We shall see if we will get them.

Read the ACLU's drone report here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.