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Law Enforcement Takes to the Skies
Most of the tasks for which drones have already been used in this country demonstrate the other main application of flying robots: law enforcement and regulatory surveillance.
The Customs and Border Protection agency has a small fleet of drones monitoring illegal immigration and drug trafficking on the border with Mexico. (The comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in June calls for drones “to maintain continuous surveillance of the Southern border.”) The Environmental Protection Agency uses drones to monitor animal feedlots, watching to see if pig and cow manure ends up in rivers. The Department of Homeland Security has flown drones as lookouts on raids and during chases by the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Texas Rangers.
State and local governments are also taking to the skies. In 2011, police in Nelson County, North Dakota, made the first arrest with the assistance of a drone when an unarmed Predator equipped for high-altitude surveillance led officers to three fugitives. Law enforcement and public safety agencies across the country have expressed interest in surveillance drones for aiding SWAT raids, assisting search and rescue operations, finding missing persons, following fleeing suspects, and fighting wildfires.
The FAA has authorized drone flights by police in Miami-Dade County; North Little Rock, Arkansas; Ogden, Utah; Seattle; and the State of Texas. The City of Herrington in Kansas and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources have also gotten the FAA’s OK, as have Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, Ohio; the University of Connecticut; and Utah State University, which are all using drones for research.
According to the FAA, more than 300 entities have received official clearance for domestic drone flights ahead of the 2015 opening of the national airspace. Some, including private operators, are already using the aircraft overseas. A team from the University of Maryland, for instance, has deployed a fleet of small reconnaissance drones to monitor rhino poaching in South Africa.
The terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon in April 2013 triggered renewed calls for deploying unmanned aircraft. “It sure would be nice to have a drone up there” to track the then-fugitive bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Washington Post. But so far, surveillance drones within the United States have only led armed officers to a suspect. To date, there have been no reported lethal drone strikes in America.
That hasn’t stopped a preventative backlash. In early February, just a few weeks before Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made national headlines with a 13-hour filibuster centered around the possible use of drone strikes against U.S. citizens, the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first city in the nation to pass a resolution restricting drones. The two-year moratorium on using the aircraft for surveillance of citizens was based on a resolution drafted by the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties advocacy group.
The Charlottesville moratorium sparked a nationwide movement. A few days after it passed, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn banned the city’s police department from flying a pair of 3.5-pound helicopter drones, which were returned to the manufacturer. Cities in California and Illinois followed suit with their own anti-drone proposals. Bills to restrict drone flights soon were proposed in more than a dozen state legislatures. To date, 43 states have introduced more than 90 bills and resolutions proposing to regulate official use of drones.
The measures are mostly symbolic, since state and local governments cannot regulate U.S. airspace. And many of them stop short of prohibiting drones for search and rescue operations or looking for missing children. Other proposals are filled with exemptions, including a bill in Texas that would allow the media to fly drones to cover breaking news events.
But the efforts to control the drones reveal a broad anxiety about a technology that most people still associate with death and destruction. We’ve had very little time to get to know these aircraft, yet they’re on the verge of ubiquity.
Privacy in the Drone Era
Once the skies open up, police will start putting up drone blimps and other high-altitude surveillance platforms to watch over entire cities. “You can’t keep the tides from coming in. We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a radio interview earlier this year. “I don’t see how you stop that. And it’s not a question of whether I think it’s good or bad. I just don’t see how you could stop that because we’re going to have [drones].”
There’s no reason to think these flying security cameras will have any more deterrent effect on crime than cameras on the sides of buildings do. More likely, they’ll be used as part of everyday policing and what the military calls “situational awareness.” These law enforcement drones, like their battlefield cousins in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be watching. And conceivably watching everyone, though a mere fraction of the millions of minutes of video they collect will ever be viewed by human eyes.
Drones present novel legal quandaries. In a 2012 case that tested the limits of law enforcement surveillance, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police needed to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracker on a suspect’s car, which is considered property and is thus protected by the Fourth Amendment. But do the police also need a warrant to follow a suspect with a drone as he walks down a public street? “It may be that achieving the same result [tracking] through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, “but the present case does not require us to answer that question.” The Court kept its ruling narrowly focused on one kind of technology, sidestepping thorny questions that might address the legal limits of drone activities.