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 give up what it has 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/

Upcoming events

I’m excited to share two upcoming events where I will be reading. On Oct. 23, I’m joining Room at the Table for a reading of work by local authors. The event is at 7 pm at Mercer County Library (Lawrence Branch). I will read two new stories I have forthcoming in Harpur Palate.

On November 10, I’m participating in the Rosenbach’s Moby-Dick Marathon at the Independence Seaport Museum. Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth by listening to this great American novel! I will read one of my favorite chapters of the book (“The Tail”) at 6:19 am.

Library book sale haul

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One of my favorite ways to buy books — besides indie book stores with used sections, of course — is at library book sales. If you go on the last day or two of the sale, you can load up on books for amazing prices. I found some sales where the books were going for $5 a bag and returned with treasures.

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This McSweeney’s title has an intriguing textured cover.
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A book about medieval books.
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A charming, old-timey handbook of 1904 vehicles (the book itself was published later)
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It’s always best when you find personal inscriptions inside!


This summer Pale Hearts was featured on American Bookfest.

I’m so grateful to all the readers who’ve told me they enjoyed the book! Thank you for taking the time to read it and share your kind words. I always appreciate Amazon or Goodreads reviews too, if you have a few minutes to comment on the book. It helps other readers find the book, and it helps me as I continue to write!

This fall I’m leading another writing workshop at the Lawrence Branch of Mercer County Library.  It will be on September 15 at 10 a.m., and the subject will be description.  We’ll talk about how to use descriptive language to make your writing vivid.

writing workshop

Thinking through environmental consequences

One thing I’ve learned in my sustainability classes is that sometimes “green” solutions aren’t always so green. By solving one problem, you might be creating another. It’s essential to evaluate entire lifecycles and supply chains to determine whether one solution actually has less environmental impact.  Here are a few examples:

1)      Electric vehicles: Because electric vehicles don’t require gasoline, they might seem like a good way to lower carbon emissions. But it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In a country where most electricity is generated by burning coal, you’ve defeated the purpose. If the electricity is generated from solar and wind power, the electric vehicle is actually powered by a sustainable energy source. However, things get even more complicated. This article points out several other factors that affect the overall environmental impact of the electric car, such as the rare metals that are acquired through destructive mining practices. Only a detailed analysis of each stage of the car’s production, use, and disposal can reveal whether electric cars are actually an improvement.

2)      Artificial Christmas trees: I was glad when my parents bought their first artificial Christmas tree, thinking it would prevent the cutting of real trees. Several years later, this artificial tree had shed most of its needles, and my parents decided to throw it out. That was when I had a horrible thought: where do all the disposed artificial Christmas trees go? It turns out plastic trees in landfills aren’t the only problem. According to this New York Times article, fake trees often contain polyvinyl chrloride (PVC), “which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Moreover, you’re not actually doing harm by cutting down a real Christmas tree. They’re grown as a local , sustainable crop, providing jobs and tree cover.

3)      Recycling: For the environmentally conscious among us, it’s reassuring to toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling instead of trash. But there are some uncomfortable truths behind recycling: it’s expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Some of it ends up in the landfill. Much of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place. And, as pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, a game-changing book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling doesn’t solve the root problem. It still relies on our society’s default product lifecycle: take resources, make a product, and dispose of it (“cradle to grave”). Recycling slows that process down by a step or two, but it doesn’t alter the overall arch. A better answer would be to shift our products toward a circular model, where waste is designed out and every element of a product, even its packaging, can be put toward productive use.