A Game of Drones

photo credit: World Can't Wait via photopin cc
photo credit: World Can’t Wait via photopin cc

by Jeremy Loudenback

Much better known as a controversial U.S. military strategy to target members of insurgent groups across the world in the expansive “War on Terror,” drones are now creeping into domestic policy conversations around policy, privacy, and governance.

Earlier this week, revelations surfaced about the use of drones by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department for police services in Compton in 2012. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, a retired Air Force veteran named Ross McNutt convinced the Sherriff’s Department to allow his company to employ surveillance technology to monitor Compton via a small aircraft.

The system, known as wide-area surveillance, is something of a time machine – the entire city is filmed and recorded in real time. Imagine Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.

“We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” McNutt said. “Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crimes occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes.”

While the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they’re also known, seems new, it is in use across the country. Small, nimble aircraft are already in use by the federal government to patrol parts of borders with Canada and Mexico. But many local law enforcements are using UAVs, bringing up governance questions as well as Fourth Amendment challenges.

In 2014, legislation aimed at drones was introduced in 36 states, and the past two years have seen 12 states enact legislation. Allie Bohm of the ACLU describes the current round of laws being debated as much more nuanced in the past. While laws introduced in 2013 largely concerned the requirement of law enforcement agencies to obtain a probable cause warrant before using a drone, this year’s crop of bills are also tackling more complex issues, such as what to do with information gathered as part of such surveillance, how long law enforcement can hold on to such information, and if other governmental entities can access that information. As a result, these legislative efforts are proceeding much more slowly, with legislators grappling with previously unforeseen technology questions.

One of the most fascinating outcomes to emerge out of heated political discussions is the unlikely coalition that has emerged in opposition to drones. Conservative and libertarian interests have joined forces with progressive watchdog groups like the ACLU to highlight privacy and oversight issues. But police and drone manufacturers are quick to point out that the price of a drone costs less than a helicopter and is much cheaper to operate, a critical concern for many cash-strapped municipalities.

Compton Mayor Aja Brown with Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic when she visited in the Fall of 2013.
Compton Mayor Aja Brown with Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic when she visited in the Fall of 2013.

Prior to the release of Center for Investigative Reporting’s report, Compton Mayor Aja Brown was unaware of the use of drones and called for the creation of a “citizen privacy protection policy” that would require law enforcement groups to notify and justify the use of drones. However, still unaddressed here are the concerns of local citizens as well as a legal framework to justify future surveillance efforts. With some analysts suggesting that 30,000 drones may be flying over American skies by 2020, the governance of drones may become even more urgent in the years to come.