Op-Ed: Drone Surveillance

Should the police be able to watch your every move using drones?

I wrote about this issue in the Star-Ledger (NJ.com).

The use of drones in Elizabeth, NJ and other cities sets a precedent for perpetual, unwarranted surveillance by law enforcement. While police have previously used drones for specific purposes (and, in fact, limited use of drones by law enforcement may be a good thing), the pandemic has become an excuse for a sudden expansion of drone surveillance in public and private spaces (1). This may well violate the Fourth Amendment. It’s not particularly effective, and it’s ripe for abuse (2).

Some additional notes: Drone makers are using the pandemic as an opportunity to promote their technology for law enforcement. It’s much worse than just pictures and video. Draganfly drones can detect heart rates (3). DJI (the drone company mentioned in my op-ed) suggests using drones to take temperatures and spray disinfectant (4). How long will it be before drones are used to disperse other fluids, like pepper spray?

Police departments have seized this opportunity to increase surveillance, remaining conspicuously silent about whether they’ll stop when then pandemic ends. We’ve seen this before. The government uses crises to seize unnecessary powers at a time when people are (rightfully) preoccupied and scared. But once the crisis ends, government does not up what it gained.

Police departments around the country and around the world say we have nothing to fear from drones during a pandemic. This amounts to cynical gaslighting of the public. Over the last few years, organizations with powerful data collection tools have repeatedly claimed the best of intentions, only to inadvertently reveal that they did, in fact, use their data in questionable ways (5, 6, 7, 8, 9).

This is not just a matter of a few drones set loose in Elizabeth, NJ. Police in Elizabeth and elsewhere are counting on silence to acclimate the public to a new level of intrusive and unjustified surveillance. Why does this matter now? Drone technology is improving rapidly. Today’s drones are noisy and you can tell they’re there. Tomorrow’s will be smaller, quieter, and difficult to detect (10). It’s time to put a stop to this now, before it becomes normalized. In a time when authoritarian governments and politicians are gaining power and influence worldwide, it’s more important than ever for US residents to fight back and preserve our freedom.

  1. http://us.wildmoka.com/c/clip/0lRwGX?fbclid=IwAR2wRNUJFJVJXkhhSkTrOK4j2TGupd5RwpuM8v-QY8U9LYWtkP-r8SKSdpg – The drones are specifically intended to police “tight spaces between buildings, behind schools, and in backyards.”
  2. https://reason.com/2020/04/24/community-anger-shuts-down-connecticut-citys-plan-to-use-drones-for-coronavirus-monitoring/ – Interestingly, police in Westport, CT responded to public criticism and stopped using the drones. In contrast, the Elizabeth PD and Mayor Bollwage have doubled down in the face of a wave of criticism.
  3. https://gizmodo.com/police-deploy-pandemic-drone-to-detect-fevers-and-enfor-1843017443 – Includes must-watch footage of how Draganfly drones track people on the ground
  4. https://enterprise.dji.com/news/detail/fight-covid-19-with-drones
  5. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/29/774400675/australia-accuses-google-of-misleading-consumers-over-location-data
  6. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qv777x/facebook-lied-to-journalists-about-how-bad-the-cambridge-analytica-scandal-was
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/amazon-alexa-recorded-conversation
  8. https://www.wired.com/2010/10/webcam-spy-settlement/
  9. https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/internet-privacy/rhode-island-some-schools-think-they-have-right-spy
  10. https://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/robobees-autonomous-flying-microrobots/

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