Drones, the remotely piloted aircraft developed for the military, may soon be coming to your local police department.
And that has civil liberties advocates worried — with good reason.
Drones allow the military to monitor a battlefield, conduct surveillance, and even launch missiles at enemy targets — all without putting a pilot at risk. The technology is advancing rapidly and as drones become smaller, less expensive and easier to operate, they are being considered for a variety of roles in civilian life. The giant Internet retailer Amazon.com famously proposed delivering its packages to customers’ homes with a fleet of drones.
State and local police departments around the nation are looking into the role drones could play in law enforcement. That has states considering what limits must be placed on drone use by law enforcement to protect people’s privacy.
One thing is certain: Drone technology is going to continue to evolve, probably faster than legislators can react to its potential for abuse. Drones soon will likely be smaller, faster, less expensive, more capable and able to operate with less human input that they require today. Their potential for creating and securing a surveillance state is the stuff of science fiction movies, dystopian novels and other cautionary tales.
And as with the abuse of any technology, it all starts innocently enough.
There is no question that drones could perform a useful function in law enforcement.
David Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade the agency is exploring the use of unmanned drones for search-and-rescue missions, traffic crashes and criminal investigations.
“We believe this technology would be beneficial to law enforcement,” he said. “There’s plenty of situations where flying an unmanned aircraft could help us respond to crash, locate a missing child or even a fleeing suspect.”
But civil liberties advocates are concerned the use of drones could be far more intrusive.
State Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, has filed legislation that would ban drones from carrying weapons — not so far-fetched as there already are models available that can fire shotguns and grenade launchers. The bill would also require police to get warrants to use drones for investigations. It would permit their use in natural disasters, accidents, terrorist attacks and other emergencies but require agencies to file a report within 48 hours justifying their use.
“This is a common-sense proposal that would allow police to use drones for legitimate purposes while protecting privacy,” Kade Crockford, director of technology and liberty initiatives for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Wade. “We’re not trying to ban the use of drones by law enforcement.”
Ned Merrick, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, one of the state’s largest police unions, insists there is no risk to privacy rights with police use of drones.
“We’re not going to be looking in peoples’ windows,” he told Wade. “In most cases, surveillance would be in public areas, where there’s no expectation of privacy.”
We have long been concerned with the proliferation of military weaponry and tactics among civilian law enforcement agencies. Drones are yet another technological marvel developed for the military that may soon be in the hands of police.
We urge legislators to set strict limits on the use of drones by law enforcement. Searching for lost children or patrolling accident scenes is one thing. Conducting automated stakeouts and hunting down suspects with drones are quite different matters.