Eyes in the air: Consider the future of drone surveillance by police
Hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agencies have started using drones as eyes in the sky. Nationwide, elected officials are still defining the legal limits of drone usage. In the context of law enforcement, “pervasive surveillance” is the threat at the front of everyone’s minds. Thus, of the 13 states with drone regulations, 11 of them require a search warrant before the government may use a drone in any capacity.
Not everyone thinks such strict warrant laws are a good idea. A 2014 Brookings Institution study by Pepperdine University professor Gregory McNeal, “Drones and Aerial Surveillance: Considerations for Legislatures,” argues that the high legal standard for any and all drone deployments by police is outmoded and counterproductive. Mr. McNeal contends the laws are mistakenly “focused on the technology [drones]” rather than “the harm [pervasive surveillance].”
For example, in a post-Boston Marathon bombing world, police may want to fly a drone above a marathon to ensure the safety of the public. But under 11 of the 13 state laws, they would not be permitted to do it without a warrant (which they are unlikely to obtain, since they would have to define precisely the place to be searched or the people to be surveilled). But for a cop on a rooftop or a helicopter flying overhead — both performing exactly the same function as the drone — no search warrant is necessary. “The legislation being pushed by privacy advocates has been explicitly directed at drone technology,” Mr. McNeal writes, “not because the technology represents an actual threat to civil liberties, but because someday in the future, the technology may be intrusive.”
Government does not often lose powers it has already won, especially those pertaining to security. Mr. McNeal is right to point out that the toy-looking things in police departments today do not pose any more threat to privacy rights than traditional surveillance techniques. But laws restricting their use should not be based on the assumption that they will always be this way.
When law enforcement agencies start buying drones with facial recognition, speakers able to pick up conversations from long distances and the capacity to stay aloft for days at a time, citizens may wish that regulation had been installed with foresight.