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Without accountability measures in place, drones meant to act as first responders could push the boundaries of monitoring and surveillance.
If drones are going to be used to keep an eye on the public, policymakers should keep an even closer eye on regulations governing their use. Otherwise, state and local leaders run the risk of enabling surveillance that violates residents’ privacy under the guise of public safety.
The warning from the American Civil Liberties Union comes as more police departments look to drones to monitor events, respond to emergencies and conduct routine surveillance. State and local governments should consider regulations that ensure drones-as-first-responder programs protect the privacy of local residents, said a report released late last month from the group. The report advocates for stricter drone policies for law enforcement agencies, including limitations on the type of and amount of data collected from the devices, standards for program performance audits and transparency requirements such as the publication of drones’ tech capabilities.
Already, at least 1,100 police departments are leveraging drones for public safety purposes, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance.
Unless issued an exemption by the Federal Aviation Administration, drone operators may not fly the devices beyond the user’s visual line of sight, or BVLOS. But the FAA is considering expanding BVLOS flights, according to a May request for comment in the Federal Register—a rule change could greatly increase law enforcement agencies’ use of drones for monitoring and surveillance purposes.
The FAA has already authorized the Pearland Police Department in Texas for BVLOS drone flights, said Brandon Karr, a public information officer at the Law Enforcement Drone Association and the department’s former unmanned aerial systems program coordinator. But the journey to BVLOS certification took more than a year of meetings with FAA and local authorities to conduct drone policy and safety reviews, demonstrating law enforcement’s commitment to responsible drone use, Karr said.
“There [are] a lot of eyes on the program in terms of safety, privacy and funding at every point and in every nook and cranny of the journey of trying to get drones-as-first-responder programs stood up,” he said.
Once a program is finalized, however, quickly dispatched drones can inform responding officers about hazardous conditions at an incident before they even arrive and enhance situational awareness during public safety missions. In February, for example, drones helped the North Carolina Hiwassee Dam Fire Department locate a missing child hours after he had wandered from his home into the woods.
While drones can be force multipliers for more efficient public safety, officials must first establish appropriate restrictions and policies for drone flights. Without accountability measures in place, drones meant to act as first responders could push the boundaries of monitoring and surveillance, the report said.
When it comes to determining appropriate drone operations, the guidelines should come from lawmakers. “Good policies, including on usage limits, transparency and privacy, should not be left up to police departments, but should be given legal force by a city council or other legislative body as part of a vote to approve a [drone-as-first-responders] program,” ACLU senior policy analyst and report author Jay Stanley wrote.
Policymakers should limit drone deployments to genuine emergencies first like active shooter situations. That way, according to Stanley, agencies can prevent drones from being used so broadly that they create a “mass surveillance regime in the skies.” The Brookhaven Police Department in Georgia, for example, has operated a drone program since 2021, but drone deployments are restricted to 911 calls for service and “are not used for random patrols,” according to the city’s site. Plus, the department regularly releases data on drone flight paths and why the device was deployed.
Agencies should focus drone deployments where “calls for service are a good return on investment,” Karr said. Sending drones unnecessarily takes up a department’s limited time and resources, wasting taxpayer dollars. Plus, negative community feedback could result in a program eventually being cut.
Besides being transparent about drone flight paths, policymakers should also require agencies to publish the technological capabilities of the devices, so residents are aware of the monitoring methods used in their communities. For example, agencies should share whether their drone’s camera is equipped with night vision, radar, lidar or other sensors and tracking tools. Publicizing that data could also deter agencies from pushing the limits of illegitimate drone use, according to the report.
State and local agencies that implement privacy protections can help head off resident concerns of police overreach. One way is with drone policies that set limits on the camera and video footage the device is allowed to capture and how long it can be retained, the report stated.
Earlier this summer, for instance, Illinois passed the Drones as First Responders Act to allow law enforcement agencies to monitor public events with drones. The act, however, addresses privacy concerns by prohibiting the use of facial recognition software on drones and by requiring agencies to destroy information gathered by drones within 30 days of being collected.
Additionally, drone cameras should not be allowed to record while en route to an incident to reduce the possibility of capturing irrelevant footage of residents’ private activities. Another way to protect resident privacy is by keeping the drone’s camera focused on the horizon, not the ground, Karr said, or configured to a wide angle zoom so no identifiable or discerning information can be gleaned from the footage.
Also, any data that is legitimately recorded should be subject to sharing restraints, the report stated, meaning footage may not be accessed by other parties, with exceptions for criminal investigations or trials.
Drone programs should also be subject to performance audits, according to the report, which can indicate whether drones actually deliver operational advantages for public safety missions. If an audit shows that drones have little effect on first responder efficiency, policymakers should consider whether public safety agencies really need them, especially since “vendors frequently push new technologies by making all kinds of unproven claims about their performance and benefits,” Stanley wrote.
Public safety agencies understand that transparency is key for successful drone programs, Karr said, and safeguarding privacy is critical because “drones are saving lives every day. We don’t want to stop that. We don’t want to ruin a good thing.”