Law enforcement agencies have embraced unmanned aerial vehicles, often called “drones,” as powerful surveillance and investigative tools.
But routine, suspicionless aerial surveillance could profoundly change the character of American life.
What is it used for?
How It Works
- Drones are unmanned aircrafts that are connected to some type of control station via a data link. People in the control station direct the drone remotely through a wireless connection. Drones vary in how far away they can fly from their control station. While the link between the controller and the aircraft is typically secure, last year researchers at the University of Texas were able to hijack a connection link and give a drone new flight commands.
- Drones vary widely in size and ability. Customs and Border Patrol uses Predator B drones to survey huge parts of the southern border. With a wingspan of 66 feet and a top altitude of nearly 50,000 feet, these workhorses can stay aloft for almost 30 hours. One of law enforcement’s favorite drones is the Insitu ScanEagle, an inexpensive craft with a 10-foot wingspan and flight time of 24 hours. Recently, small “hummingbird” craft designed for stealth surveillance have reached the market. Disguised as real hummingbirds, these drones have a wingspan of 6.5 inches and weigh less than an AA battery.
- Police can outfit drones with a wide variety of advanced surveillance tools. Law enforcement may equip their drones with live video, infrared, or heat-sensing cameras. Some use cameras that can scan and record entire neighborhoods or small cities. Others zoom in on a face or license plate from miles away. Some drones may contain Wi-Fi sensors or cell tower simulators that track the location of your cell phone or wireless devices capable of delivering spyware to your phone or computer. Powerful video analytics give drones independence. Smart drones can identify and track people, recognize ”suspicious” activities, or even flag changes in routines, buildings, or grounds.
- Drones can talk to one another. They offer flexibility and cooperative abilities that outstrip the abilities of manned aircraft. The ACLU has pointed out that “a large number of cheap, autonomous drones working in concert like a swarm of insects” could watch a neighborhood or city in far greater detail than a few manned helicopters.
Civil Liberties Concerns?
How Prevalent Is It?
Public records show the FBI, DEA, and Border Patrol often use Predator drones in surveillance missions inside the United States. These agencies share their drones with state and local police with alarming frequency. Some local police departments are interested in building their own drone fleets, encouraged by over $4 million in federal grants.
Examples Of Use
Location: Seattle, WA
Public Outcry Grounds Seattle Drone Program
In 2010, the Seattle Police Department received an $80,000 grant through the DHS State Homeland Security Program to buy two surveillance drones, writing that they would provide “enhanced situational awareness at both the command and operations level.” The SPD chose Draganflyer X6 drones, each weighing about 3.5 pounds and equipped with live video and night-vision cameras. Although these models could only stay aloft for about 15 minutes, the ACLU-WA and many concerned residents voiced alarm about the absence of rules governing their use, and elected officials chafed overt the lack of transparency surrounding their acquisition. Under concerted pressure from privacy advocates, some city council members, and the public at large, the mayor ordered the drone surveillance program stopped and the drones returned to the manufacturer. They never made it back to the company, however. Over a year later, the city gave the drones to the Los Angeles Police Department.
“The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed. The legislature shall implement this section.”
Article 1, Section 22 of the Alaska Constitution.