In the last few years, media reports on hobbyist drones have flown in a frightening and predictable pattern. Nearly every week, these small, camera-equipped, radio-controlled helicopters are framed as public hazards or futuristic tools for criminals — crashing on the White House lawn, attempting cross-border drug deliveries, flying too close to airplanes or attacking Enrique Iglesias on stage. Too often and much to their users’ dismay, they’re conflated with the military death machines (regrettably also called drones) that fire missiles at suspected terrorists and unsuspecting civilians overseas under dubious legal justifications.
It’s an unfortunate spectacle that will likely continue as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) works to craft a clear set of rules for commercial drones by the end of this year. Last week The Los Angeles Times reported that drones obstructed efforts to fight wildfires in California, spurring lawmakers to call for penalties of up to five years in prison for users flying drones too close to a blaze. A few days earlier, major media outlets posted a YouTube video of a drone firing a handgun, prompting an FAA investigation. Another recent viral video appears to show the view from a cabin window as a drone collides with a passenger plane, ripping off the tip of its wing. The video is clearly fake, but U.K. tabloid The Mirror posted it anyway.
While these stories clearly resonate with members of the drone-fearing public, the hype and hysteria can overshadow the fact that drones, like all technologies, are imperfect tools: not good or evil or neutral, beholden to their users and hard coded with the biases of their creators. And if there’s a group of drone users that deserves scrutiny and fear, it’s not our next-door neighbors; it’s the police.
In my brief time building and flying them, I’ve found that drones are fickle and fragile things, more likely to be blown away by a strong gust than cause serious physical damage. Your average drone poses no more or less danger to an airplane than a bird and would disintegrate on impact. And the idea of hobbyist drones carrying guns — while definitely scary and possible — is still wildly impractical because of severely limited battery life and carrying capacity.
Even so, the FAA has set ground rules that force civilian drones to stay under 400 feet and out of restricted airspace. That malleable label will have to be applied judiciously to protect journalists and activists, who are using drones to cover protests, photograph natural disasters and expose animal rights abuses. (In November, police put a no-fly zone over the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, with the explicit purpose of keeping news crews and citizen observers grounded.)
The drone community has ways of self-policing: One of the most popular hobbyist forums has a whole drone advocacy section dedicated to promoting safety and fighting negative perceptions by laying out rules and tips for responsible flying. Whenever news breaks of a drone user doing something stupid, a thread typically appears to educate pilots (and hopefully, the press) on the dos and don’ts behind the headlines.
Police, meanwhile, have been incredibly opaque about what rules — if any — they follow when using drones. In its 2013–14 drone census, the public records advocacy site MuckRock teamed up with online tech magazine Motherboard and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to unveil dozens of police and government entities buying, flying and planning to adopt drones. They included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Seattle Police Department, the New York Police Department and many other federal, state and local agencies.
While some agencies have written policies and privacy impact assessments governing drone use, the rules vary greatly from state to state. Some law enforcement entities, such as the NYPD, have gone to Kafkaesque lengths to hide everything about their drone programs despite more than two years of persistent questioning. And the majority don’t appear to have formal guidelines at all.
As I’ve written before, letting police fill the streets and skies with networked cameras is a fast-approaching nightmare scenario for privacy and civil liberties. The combination of persistent aerial surveillance tech with already widespread facial recognition — for example, in the form of drones or manned aircraft making secret surveillance flights for the FBI — robs us of a fundamental right to control what information we reveal through our mere physical presence. When anyone with access to a database can instantly identify and track anyone walking down the street, it destroys the protective barrier between one’s private and public self.
Technology has a multiplier effect, and it’s naive to think police won’t use these tools to optimize predatory practices such as stop and frisk, civil asset forfeiture and discriminatory violence and surveillance. In India, police have adapted drones to shoot pepper spray at protesters. In the U.S., aerial surveillance systems already exist that enable authorities to monitor entire cities and zoom in on objects as small as 6 inches. These ubiquitous, soon-to-be-automated systems and sensors combine to create what Rob Kitchin, a geographer and spatial analysis expert at Maynooth University, calls the “smart city,” which he describes as “an all-seeing, all-tracking, all-reacting system that stifles dissent before it has chance to organize.”
And yet police and corporate lobbyists raise the risk that they will have a hugely disproportionate say in how drones should and should not be used.
In Illinois, a bill currently awaiting the governor’s signature would create an “unmanned aerial system oversight task force” heavily influenced by cops. Of the 22 organizations selected to craft rules for drones in the state, one-fifth are law enforcement agencies, giving them far greater representation than any other group involved. Not a single privacy or civil liberties group has been invited on the panel.
Another panel on facial recognition, which will inevitably be used by police drones, ran into similar problems in Washington, D.C., last month. Nine major privacy and consumer advocacy groups walked out of the talks, convened by the Commerce Department, because tech lobbyists refused to agree to the basic premise that people should be able to walk down the street without being identified and tracked by unknown parties.
Earlier this year, the Michigan State Police became the first law enforcement agency to receive statewide authorization from the FAA to use drones. The agency first purchased drones in 2013 through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, and so far it seems that they have been used only for firefighting and search-and-rescue missions. But in Michigan and most other states, there are still no laws on the books limiting when, how or why they are deployed. Only 15 states require police to get a warrant before using drones for surveillance.
Like all new technologies, drones hold the potential to adjust existing power relationships — for better or worse. With the FAA’s drone rules now past their public comment period, it will be up to state legislatures to prevent police from getting a blank check.