Could unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, catch Boston terror suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Industry head Michael Toscano seems to think so and his comments have sparked a new debate over the use of drones by law enforcement.
Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International told U.S. News and World Report:
Whether it is in response to a natural disaster or a tragedy like we saw in Boston, UAS can be quickly deployed to provide first responders with critical situational awareness in areas too dangerous or difficult for manned aircraft to reach.
While the association has an invested interest in seeing drone technology take off, Popular Science responds to Toscano and points out that while drones could be used for dangerous manhunts, so can helicopters:
Is he right? Well, he's not entirely wrong. Drones, like manned helicopters used by police and emergency responders, can hover, provide a great overall picture of action on the ground, and direct aid to where it's needed. The trick is that, right now, drones don't do that uniquely, which is what a sales pitch on their special capacity demands. Boston did in fact have a police helicopter flying overhead, and the problem of low fuel reportedly overheard on the police scanner is a problem that another helicopter could have solved just as easily. Drones aren't particularly special in disaster relief—yet.
Nevertheless, when it comes to law enforcement and surveillance of any stripe, there is always the chance that police could spy on citizens–privacy safeguards or no privacy safeguards. The New York Civil Liberties Union points to an instance in their 2006 report, Who's Watching: Video Camera Surveillance in New York City and the Need for Public Oversight:
A man and woman who shared an intimate moment on a dark and secluded rooftop in August 2004 learned later that they had been secretly watched by police officers charged with conducting surveillance of nearby protest rallies.
From a custom-built $9.8 million helicopter equipped with optical equipment capable of displaying a license plate 1,000 feet away, police officers tracked bicycle riders moving through the streets of the Lower East Side.
Then, using the camera's night vision capability, one officer shifted the focus away from the protesters and recorded nearly four minutes of the couple's activities on the terrace of their Second Avenue apartment.
"When you watch the tape, it makes you feel kind of ill," said Jeffrey Rosner, 51, one of the two who were taped. "I had no idea they were filming me. Who would ever have an idea like that?"
While drone technology may be a useful tool during a manhunt, what happens when the manhunt is over? Can police use the technology to fight other crimes, like possession of marijuana or jaywalking? Criminal law professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles told Reason TV in Cops with Drones: Alameda Co., CA, Weighs Technology vs. Privacy:
Generally there is this real friction between technology and civil liberties and we haven't really figured out how to deal with it and frankly neither has the Supreme Court. Because we are developing much faster, technologies that can allow law enforcement and the government to invade our privacy. Just look around you, on the street corners you have cameras in the lights, you know have these drones that can go all around, everywhere you go the government can surveilnt you. And yet the laws written to deal with this go back to time of the framers of the Constitution. What did they know about drones?