Drone

Chicago Police Don’t Need Facial Recognition Drones

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is backing legislation that passed the state Senate earlier this month that would allow Illinois police to use drones to monitor “large scale events,” including protests. This legislation would be worrying enough if the drones were merely outfitted with video and audio capability. However, these drones could one day be equipped with facial recognition tools, amplifying the privacy risks associated with drones buzzing over citizens engaging in First Amendment-protected activities.

Supporters of drone surveillance such as State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-11th District) cite public safety concerns as justification for this bill. But public safety can and is cited for any new piece of surveillance equipment. When considering the deployment of surveillance technology we should consider how the technology is likely to be used, not how its proponents say it will.

The proposal, backed by two of Emanuel’s General Assembly allies, is an amendment to Illinois’ Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, which includes some admirable provisions, such as a warrant requirement. If passed, police would be permitted to use drones to surveil any event with at least one hundred people in attendance. Protests and demonstrations are only a few of the events that could fall into this category – football games, parades, music performances, and conventions would also be fair game for drone surveillance. 

Chicago police are already technology pioneers, taking advantage of what University of the District of Columbia law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson calls “Big Data Policing.” In Chicago, police use a secret algorithm that assigns a police risk score to hundreds of thousands of residents. Tens of thousands of these residents are classified as “high risk” of being involved in a shooting despite having never been arrested or shot. 

The Chicago Police Department has been criticized for conducting social media surveillance, and a few years ago it acknowledged that it had been using cell-site simulators – powerful snooping tools originally designed for military use. Given the CPD’s propensity for new surveillance gadgets we should expect its officers to fly drones over protests and similar gatherings if provided the opportunity.

CBP Drones: Inefficient and a Threat to Privacy

My colleague David Bier and I have written a policy brief on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flown by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). We argue that CBP’s fleet of Predator B drones are a threat to the privacy of Americans living along the border and an inefficient tool for locating illegal border crossers and illegal drugs. In addition, state and local use of these UAVs mean that American living in the interior are also at risk of being the target of warrantless surveillance.

Predator B drones may have a reputation as highly efficient military tools, but on the homefront they’ve proven inefficient at contributing to border security. For instance, in the last few years CBP’s predator drones have contributed to less than a percent of illegal border crosser apprehensions at a cost of $32,000 per arrest. When it comes to marijuana seizures, the drone fare little better, being responsible for about 3 percent of marijuana seizures in the same time period.

These inefficient UAVs pose a threat to Americans living along the border and in the interior. State and local law enforcement can request CBP drones for assistance. In fact, the first domestic law enforcement use of UAV to assist an arrest was in 2011, when police in North Dakota requested the use of a CBP Predator. Thanks to three Supreme Court cases from the 1980s warrantless aerial surveillance does not run afoul of the 4th Amendment. While some states have passed warrant requirements for UAVs, it’s not clear whether CBP adheres to state warrant requirements when acting on the behest of state and local law enforcement.

Amazon Patents Police Traffic Stop Drone

Last July, Dallas police used a robot to kill the man who fatally shot five Dallas-area police officers. Shortly after the shooting I noted that new technologies, such as robots, should prompt lawmakers to find ways to make the face-to-face interactions citizens have with officers safer and less frequent.

How Not to Think About Drone Policy

Today, The Oklahoman published an editorial that serves as a good example of how not to think about drone policy. According to The Oklahoman editorial board, a proposed drone weaponization ban was a solution in search of a problem, and concerns regarding privacy are based on unjustifiable fears. This attitude ignores the state of drone technology and disregards the fact that drones should prompt us to re-think privacy protections.

Weaponized drones are often thought of as tools of foreign policy, but technological advances mean that Americans should be keeping an eye out for armed drones on the home front. Yet, in the pages of The Oklahoman readers will find the following:

we know of no instance where Oklahoma law enforcement officers have used drones to shoot someone without justification. To ban the police from using weaponized drones appears a solution in search of a problem.

I’m not aware of police in Oklahoma using drones to shoot someone with justification, but that’s beside my main point. Oklahoman lawmakers shouldn’t have to wait for a citizen to be shot by a weaponized drone before considering regulations. It would be premature for legislators to consider teleport regulations or artificial intelligence citizenship bills. But weaponized drones are no longer reserved to the imagination of science fiction writers. They’re here.

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