Sgt. Andrew Cohen of the Miami-Dade Police Department says their two drones are still in testing and training, but would mostly be used to provide tactical air support to police units, such as in a hostage situation. He said that there is a “misconception” that drones will be used to infringe on people’s privacy — if for no other reason than because they’re very noisy. “This thing is not stealth technology,” Cohen said. “It’s being used on a police scene” where there are already a number of police units present. “We’re not going to see anything with this probably any more than if we had a helicopter up there.”
“Everything is a tool, it’s how you use it that makes it good or bad,” Cohen said.
But civil liberties advocates are worried that it’ll be a slippery slope as more and more law enforcement agencies acquire this type of technology under the potential new FAA regulations.
The ACLU put out a report this month analyzing the increase in domestic drones, noting that since 2005 the Customs and Border Protection agency has operated seven Predator B drones along the southern border, and it hopes to increase that number to 24 by 2016. “The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities,” the report says.
Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that a big concern right now is how murky the statistics are on the number of domestic drones. “They’re concerning for the privacy of Americans, and we just don’t know at this point how the agencies are using them,” she said.
“The Department of Homeland Security is working with state and local law enforcement to use drones for basic criminal activity,” Lynch said. “And in my mind that type of activity hasn’t been approved for the use of these drones.”
“I don’t believe that law enforcement agencies have the proper standards in place for when using drones is appropriate,” she said.
Ryan Calo, the Director for Privacy and Robotics at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a report that “these machines are disquieting. Virtually any robot can engender a certain amount of discomfort, let alone one associated in the mind of the average American with spy operations or targeted killing. If you will pardon the inevitable reference to 1984, George Orwell specifically describes small flying devices that roam neighborhoods and peer into windows.”
Calo told TPM that local sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies are using the smaller drones “more regularly,” though it’s still not routine. But Calo noted that under the possible new FAA regulations it’ll become much more common. “There’s a little bit of a trickle, but it would turn into a waterfall if they loosen their restrictions,” he said.
“You can imagine some pretty mischievous uses” for drones, Calo said. “The kind of privacy violations I’m worried about are from government and big corporations alike.” If the restrictions are loosened, he said, some estimates put the number of domestic drones at 15,000 by 2018. But he emphasized that if there is such a dramatic increase in the number of drones out there, there will likely be a reexamining of existing privacy laws. “I think we’re not going to be comfortable with some of the doctrine on the books for privacy law.”