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
Alexlmx /

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.

NEXT: New York's Mayor Backs Supervised Injection Facilities to Reduce Opioid Deaths

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  1. As long as CPD doesn’t get its dick skinners on broomstick handle shaped drones.

    1. I am not sure what imagery you were going for, but wooden drones covered with stretched foreskin sounds terrifying.

      1. You’re confusing your sexual excitement with terror; the two feelings are sometimes hard to distinguish.

  2. Don’t these silly legislators understand that law does not apply to the police? All that matters is department policy. If policy and law are in conflict, policy wins every time.

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

    He wants to force me to watch him yodel yaked?

    1. I was going to point out that he was invited to perform with the Joffrey Ballet, so while not naked, you could probably find a performance of him in tights. But then, Urban Dictionary tells me that ‘yaked’ is essentially ‘coked out of one’s skull’ and I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be any footage of that.

      1. yakedy yak, don’t talk back

      2. you could probably find a performance of him in tights

        You’re going to make us enact this labor for you, aren’t you.

  4. Come on guys. We’ve seen enough scifi to know this is the inevitable future.

  5. alt-text is a winner!

  6. Oh joy… automated police. What will the unions do? We are talking Chicago after all. And, don’t forget… a megawatt of unsycronised random noise can disrupt/take out virutally any electronic navigation equipment made, but you probably only need half of that for a drone.

  7. I don’t really see the big issue with drones…anybody, including the police, can take pics/film in public. Particularly for identifying criminals and seeing who-did-what-to-who, this seems like a big improvement, like police wearing body cams, which Reason is FOR. Given the unreliability of witness recollections, this seems like a good thing as long is its limited to public areas.

    The real issue is the use of the footage for non-police work, and THAT ought to get vigorous oversight and some strict rules. Opposing drones seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. I don’t really see the big issue with drones…anybody, including the police, can take pics/film in public.

      Second. My first thought when I read “and even use facial recognition tools against protesters” was, “To what? Recognize their faces in public?”

      When your position involves somewhat willfully blinding officers and hiding publicly available information, you may’ve gone a bit around the bend.

      1. My first thought when I read “and even use facial recognition tools against protesters” was, “To what? Recognize their faces in public?”

        Every despotic regime has done whatever it could to identify dissidents and critics, so they could be arrested, killed, disappeared, or otherwise silenced.

        We’re inching our way there. It’s only a matter of time.

        Why speed it up?

        1. Why speed it up?

          There’s lots of reasons to speed up the identification of people including dissidents and critics even. Arguably, arrested as well (We’re gonna book, process, and release you as quickly as possible so you can get back to your little protest.)

          Killed, disappeared, or otherwise silenced, I’m not a fan of at any speed or technological skill level.

          If the violent dissenters have a right to public obfuscation, the violent supporters are going to avail themselves of that right as well. So, unless the facial recognition software is really some manner of political alignment recognition software, I don’t have a problem with it.

          1. Sure the facial recognition will be used to identify people who commit acts of violence. At first. But it will soon be used to make a database of otherwise peaceful people who hold opinions that the police or their government masters don’t like. You know, gun rights, police accountability, support for liberty and justice, constitutional limits on power…. All the things that those in power abhor.

          2. This is a textbook example of “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”

            Don’t give them an inch.

    2. If this allowed, before long armed drones will be looking through your window. When it comes to abuse of power, the slippery slope is a guarantee, not a fallacy.

      As long as you aren’t doing something wrong… Mmmm hmmm.

      1. Well, I think they can already do that, as long as the drone is in navigable airspace. If the police fly over your house in a helicopter, should they avert their eyes from your property ? Should we now ban police body cams ? I guess I don’t see drones as an especially big deal.

        I get your point about mission creep, but I think we are already there…I’d rather see this prompt laws of specific limitations on drone use.

    3. “The real issue is the use of the footage for non-police work, and THAT ought to get vigorous oversight and some strict rules. Opposing drones seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

      Vigorous oversight by whom? Government?

      1984 should be required reading for everyone.

      1. By oversight, I mean specific legislation on the limitations of police drone usage.

        I know, I know “we can’t trust the police/government” but thats true NOW and for myraid things above and beyond drones, and we need legislative fixes for that, like:
        1) Taking a good hard look at prosecutorial immuunity
        2) Review of police shootings by an independent board
        …and the list goes on.

        As I asked above, do you want to ban police body cams ?

  8. collectively everyone should give the finger to the drones and then fire away!

  9. Chicago using this to spy on anti-Trump protesters! Hilarious!

  10. The Chicago Police Department wants to use drones to monitor public gatherings, including protests. According to the department, it wants to do so in order to protect participants’ safety.

    Reflect that when cattle drivers lose control of their herd, cattle are less safe than when drivers maintain control of the herd. Control is the key to safety. If you control people, you can keep them safe.

  11. How long before people start shooting drones out of the sky? How long before some hacker figures out how to electronically screw with the drones? It’ll be raining cats and drones!

  12. It is time for security and good decision to drone surveillance in public interest area.

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