January 2013 Bar Bulletin
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January 2013 Bar Bulletin

Safeguards Needed for Police Drones

By Doug Honig


On a Friday afternoon last April, a reporter called asking for ACLU comment on the news that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) had received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to employ two unmanned aerial drones it had purchased.

City officials weren't commenting, but the ACLU wasn't so shy. We pointed out that while police drones may have valuable uses for law enforcement, they also provide an unprecedented ability for the government to engage in surveillance of the activities of law-abiding people. We called for the mayor and City Council to develop clear and transparent policies to safeguard privacy and free speech rights, and for public dialogue about the use of police drones in Seattle's skies.

The dialogue quickly began. "Eye-in-sky SPD drones stir privacy concerns," proclaimed the top, front-page article in the next morning's Seattle Times. Garnering 337 online responses, it became the paper's most commented upon story of the weekend. An assistant police chief appeared before the Seattle City Council a few days later to assure city leaders and the public that the drones would not be deployed until written policies for their use are in place.

Police already use helicopters, and new technology for law enforcement is coming out all the time. So, why is the prospect of police drones such a concern?

Seattle police officials point out that their unmanned aerial vehicles have limited capabilities; for example, they can stay aloft for only about 10 minutes. But the real concern is not the police drones of today, but the likely drones of the not-so-distant future.

Drone manufacturers foresee a lucrative market for their products' use in the United States and already have formed their own trade group - the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In coming years, domestic drones inevitably will become cheaper and more powerful.

"Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance," a white paper issued by the national ACLU in December 2011, lays out where the drone industry is heading. We can expect to see drones with high-powered zoom lenses, night vision, and radar technology that can see through ceilings and walls. The Air Force has tested a system called "Gorgon Stare," which uses multiple video cameras to look at a whole city.

Seattle police say they want to use drones in such situations as searching for missing persons and in dangerous tactical situations, such as when a hostage-taker is barricaded inside a house. Indeed, when limited to such circumstances, drones have the potential to be useful to law enforcement.

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