Chicago Mayor Pushes for Police Drone Surveillance of Public Gatherings

Rahm Emanuel wants to do the thing that critics of drone surveillance fear most.


Police drone
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Illinois passed a law three years ago requiring police to get warrants before use drones for most surveillance purposes. But a bill being pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies in the state legislature would blow a massive hole in these restrictions by allowing the government to use drones to monitor protests and large gatherings.

The American Civil Liberties Union is raising hell, noting that the change in the law would allow Chicago police (who have a history of secret surveillance against political activists) to take pictures, record video, and even use facial recognition tools against protesters. The Chicago Sun-Times reports:

"If this bill is passed, as drafted, during the next large scale political rally, drones could identify and list people protesting the Trump administration," added [Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU's Police Practices Project].

"The sight of drones overhead, collecting information, may deter people from protesting in a time when so many want to exercise their First Amendment rights….This is too much unchecked power to give to the police—in Chicago or anywhere."

Representatives for the mayor's office say this is all about "ensuring the safety" of people attending large events. The bill requires regular reporting of when police use drones and says any data collected must be deleted after 30 days unless it's connected to a "criminal matter." It also forbids arming the drones with any sort of weapon, but only for this particular addition to the surveillance rules. Sheley worries that this new bill therefore creates a loophole that would allow police to arm drones for use in other circumstances.

Drones can be useful tools for emergency responders in crisis and rescue situations when it's dangerous to send in human beings. So the value of drones in the hands of police shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But the one thing critics of drone surveillance are most opposed to using them for—snooping on public political activism—is the exact thing this bill is attempting to authorize.

Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a very different police surveillance bill. SB 1186 would require that local law enforcement agencies each to submit a surveillance tech use policy to its city or county governing body, which would then vote on them. They'd have to make these policies available online, and they would be forbidden from sharing or selling data collected from surveillance with anybody other than permitted law enforcement agencies (including the Department of Justice).

This is not a bill that permits or forbids types of tech surveillance. It requires counties and cities to be open with citizens about what sort of tools they use, and it puts city and county elected officials in an oversight position. They can decide which surveillance tech to permit and which to forbid.

SB 1186 is currently in the state Senate's appropriations committee and is scheduled for a hearing next week. The ACLU supports the legislation, and is encouraging citizens to contact their lawmakers, noting:

Local surveillance rarely stays local. It starts with local law enforcement agencies purchasing high powered technologies like drones, license plate readers, or facial recognition software, or conducting social media surveillance.

Increasingly, this secret surveillance creeps into almost aspect of our lives, leaving the door open to monitoring and detention not just by local police, but also by the federal government. Whether it is the monitoring of #BlackLivesMatter protestors and leaders, or the tracking of immigrant and Muslim community members, this secret surveillance must stop.

It's not entirely clear if this bill is going to get them what they want, given that there are cities in California resisting the state's "sanctuary" law that attempts to restrict how local police share information about people's immigration status with the feds. A number of communities could very well give this "secret surveillance" their full stamp of approval and in fact encourage its use to track the very people the ACLU wants to protect.

Nevertheless, transparency and oversight are certainly preferable to letting police operate however they choose. It at least gives the community the chance to hold elected officials responsible if they expand surveillance in ways that violate civil liberties.