ACLU Discusses Concerns Over Police Drone Surveillance, Drone Delivery: DRONELIFE Exclusive

Delivery Drone

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ACLU wants tighter regulations on use of drones by police, public: DRONELIFE Interview

By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill

(As the use of drones by police agencies as well as by businesses and members of the public has proliferated, personal rights advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union have expressed growing concern over the privacy implications of the technologic trend. The following interview with Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, explores the organization’s position on topics such as the use of drones by police to conduct surveillance and the FAA’s plans to expand the permitting of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

DroneLife: I saw the white paper report you did on police use of drones for surveillance purposes. What would you say are the main issues that you’re concerned about?

Stanley: Our overarching concern is that drones not become infrastructure for routine surveillance of American life and American communities.  There are police departments, police chiefs who I think would love to have drones up over their communities 24/7.

Baltimore police tried it. The ACLU filed a suit against them and won, but there’s still plenty of room for the use of drones for surveillance.  They can also be used, not just for surveillance but also for intimidation, and for supposed shows of force where — the best way of putting it is the police seek to deter bad behavior by making everybody very, very aware that the police are present. Another way of putting it is they seek to frighten and intimidate protesters.

So, our job is to worry about checks and balances on government power and police power, and the possibility of abuse of technologies and the possibility for their overuse in ways that diminish the quality of life in communities. Drones are a very powerful surveillance technology, and so we worry that they’ll be used in particular for privacy evasions, but also for routine surveillance to create chilling effects.

DroneLife: Have you seen any examples of this police overreach of drone use with the recent pro-Palestinian protests?

Stanley: We do know that the NYPD was putting drones over Columbia (University). It’s unclear how necessary that was, or whether it helps law enforcement perform legitimate duties in a professional and peaceful way.

Reports were lacking in some situations, but also, the NYPD banned media from covering what they were doing, so we don’t really know whether they were professional or not. But I have spoken to activists who said that they felt like drones were deployed at protests, not for legitimate peacekeeping missions, but swooping low and trying to intimidate people.

DroneLife: You also have stated that you’re concerned about police agencies’ use of drones as first responders. Can you tell me what your concerns are about this issue?

Stanley: One question is about the cost/benefit balance and what the limits of these programs will be. If you have police drones flying over a community constantly, on their ways to various calls and for this and for that, their uses can be expanded in other ways. We just might end up having police drones overhead all the time, and potentially recording everything that they’re seeing below them.

You could see drones deployed to follow people. One of the concerns is that they evolve from incident-based responses to routine patrols. Already, Beverly Hills seems to be doing routine patrols. We don’t think Americans should have to feel like there’s a police eye in the sky watching them from when they leave their house in the morning to when they get back at night and every time in between.

A lot of the calls, the reasons that drones are sent out across the city, appear to be very minor, things like a kid bouncing a ball against a door, or things like a suspicious person, and it just means the volume of drones flying over the city all the time could get very high.

That could be ameliorated by policies that limit recordings, so that they’re not recording when they’re coming to or from a call. That’s part of what we call for; guidelines for DFR programs, such as usage limits, so that they’re not used for an ever-growing list of things, and transparency about how they’re being used.

Chula Vista (California) and other places like Canada have commendable transparency portals. But most other places do not have transparency about exactly what kind of sensor payload these aircraft are carrying, what the police agencies’ policies are around data storage, retention and access sharing, and whether or not overall these programs are worth the bang the buck. Is the money being spent on these programs improving the community more than if we put that same money towards making life better in the community in other ways that might cut the overall crime rate?

There needs to be clear rules for when video is retained and when it’s shared with the public. If the video captures people in private moments or something, then there may be no public interest in it and it should not be released. If it captures an officer shooting, then the public has a very strong interest in having access to that information about how these public servants are using or possibly abusing their power.

It’s a brand-new technology, that’s never existed in the world before. There are going to be a lot of questions as to how it plays out over time. There needs to be transparency so people can figure out what they think of it.

DroneLife: You have also expressed some concerns over the FAA expanding the use of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. Can you comment on why that’s a concern?

Stanley: I think that from a law-enforcement perspective, it opens the door to a much broader law-enforcement use of drones. While there can certainly be good uses of this tool, we don’t want to see drones flying overhead all the time for all manner of minor incidents, making people feel like they’re being watched all the time.

For [the commercial and recreational] uses of drones, similarly, it’s privacy and nuisance issues. We don’t really know whether Americans want drones over their community. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll love them or maybe they’ll hate them. Maybe they don’t want the noise or they don’t want the feeling that something’s flying over their homes.

We’re aware of a lot of incidents of people shooting down drones, and if our skies are being darkened with — whether it’s police drones, or Amazon or UPS delivery drones or a drone delivering pizza slices — we don’t know how people are going to like that. And people should have a say in what their communities look like.

And so, what I’ve called for is for the FAA and Congress, or policymakers in general to allow communities to have greater regulatory authority over BVLOS drones in their community. This is not like a flight from JFK to LAX, where obviously you can’t have every county in between setting their own rules.

But local drones fly around on a 20-minute average battery charge. They’re more like bicycles than they are like jetliners. And also, they’re going to be much more intimately intrusive and entangled with people’s private lives in their homes and in their communities. And so, I’ve argued in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that local communities should be able to ban drones if they wish.

If you’re living somewhere and there’s too much traffic by your house you call up your city council member and you say, ‘I want to lower the speed limit, I want to put in speed bumps, or I want to turn this into a one-way street.’ Those quality-of-life arguments happen all the time in communities, and people get more passionate about them than they do about any foreign policy issue. But if they have a drone that’s bothering them, and they have to call the FAA, how’s that going to work?  So, it’s a conservative localism argument that people ought to have control of their lives.

And there are privacy issues here too, which is really what I’m concerned about. Delivery drones could be buzzing all over the city, and they’ve got cameras recording everything. That’s a privacy issue. Say, I’ve got drone cameras flying over my house 30 times a day, taking pictures of me, everybody in my backyard.

 Are they sharing video with the police? Will the police ask nicely? Will they use A.I. to do analysis of how much time I spend in my backyard?  Are some creepy employees looking at pictures of my family? There’s just a lot of questions to come with having all kinds of drones flying long distances around the community.

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Jim mug2Jim mug2Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Miriam McNabbMiriam McNabb

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.


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