Drones, yes, but with strict rules

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 09:28 AM

Before Police Chief Debra Duncan and her officers launch the new Maveric surveillance drone she was authorized to acquire last week, the city council must formulate and approve a set of policies for the use of this new high-tech tool of law enforcement.

Drones — especially those equipped with cutting edge camera and surveillance technology — have a high potential for the kinds of abuse that would shred our Fourth Amendment right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Whatever capabilities drones have today,  tomorrow they will be more powerful and have more potential for intrusive and invasive abuse. Armed with tools like infrared cameras that can track people inside their own homes, drones could make any expectation of privacy vanish completely.

It is up to the council, whose job it is to set policy, to define whether and what to allow, and how much and how well they will protect citizens from unwarranted spying.

The legal questions are knotty.

Clearly, no one has an expectation of privacy when they venture out in public. Neither do we have such an expectation when we are on our own property but plainly visible from public streets and public places.

Does a hedge or a privacy fence raise our expectations of privacy? It is OK to send a drone over that fence to look for marijuana plants in a backyard? We already do that with helicopters. Is there a difference when the drone is smaller and silent? Or when all it finds is your daughter sunbathing by your backyard pool?

Is it OK for a drone — some are as small as a few inches and can hover silently — to peer into your bedroom window with its infrared camera? Too silly an example?

In one famous case, the New York Police Department used one of its helicopters to film a couple making love on a darkened rooftop balcony for four minutes. Likewise, surveys in Britain have shown that surveillance is more likely to target black people — two-and-a-half times more likely — than others in the population.

So who do we trust with this technology?

Clearly, the answer is no one.

That is why we need firm clear rules for when and how this potent surveillance device can be used to aid police in situations like riots, tracking criminals fleeing from a crime scene, gathering information during a hostage crisis, or helping police understand risks they might face in places they cannot easily or safely see.

There is more good than harm that can come from use of drones, but council should set precise parameters to minimize the chance of abuse of this technology.