Are US police using drones to spy on the public?

Are US police using drones to spy on the public?

Whenever the topic of surveillance is invoked, one term is shown to crop up again and again: "Big Brother." It's become something of an easy soundbite in this debate, but it's all the more pervasive because Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to encapsulate our deepest anxieties and reservations about the nature of authority's invasion of our personal privacy. Suffice to say, the issue has only become more pressing in the digital age.

Nowadays, when the cold, round eyes of dispassionate webcams and security cameras seem to track our movements, when personal information is traded by vast corporations as a form of commodity, the last thing anyone would wish is for The Man to have eyes in the sky. It's enough to make anyone paranoid.

Yet, apparently the worst fears of isolationists have been confirmed. It turns out that police authorities have already begun to use drones to carry out covert spy programmes from the air, using high-tech military drones to monitor the public. From drab office spaces, where white-collar computer engineers sit at their desks clicking at the screen, police have a bird-eye panorama of American cities, the perfect vantage points by which they can catch criminals in the act. The most troubling part of it all? Most people have no idea that these drones are up there.

The first use of drones as an official federal surveillance tool was by border patrol stationed at the US-Mexico border; they used it to make sure that immigrants were not entering the country illegally. However, a civil-liberties group named Electronic Frontier Foundation used a freedom of information lawsuit to reveal that Customs and Border Protection routinely lent their drones to other homeland departments for clandestine sting operations. Customs and Border Protection boasts the largest American drone fleet outside the Defence Department and, according to dossiers released as a response to court action from the EFF, flew nearly 700 such surveillance missions on behalf of other federal agencies between 2010 to 2012.

But this was only the beginning. Back in 2012, it was never imagined that this military technology would have quite so many domestic applications; but the next five years saw a vast proliferation of drones and drone use around the world, and so it was only natural that, slowly but surely, law enforcement would begin to adopt them for their own purposes. Aerial surveillance is on the rise in the United States, where police are able to take video recordings and photographs in the public airspace without fear of repercussions thanks to a number of legal loopholes.

For example, in the 1986 case of California vs Ciraolo, the court ruled in favour of the police when they flew over a man’s property to observe him for growing a crop of marijuana. The jury ultimately concluded that: "any member of the public flying in this airspace who glanced down could have seen everything that these officers observed ... the use of an aerial mapping camera to photograph an industrial manufacturing complex from navigable airspace similarly does not require a warrant under the Fourth Amendment." Thus, drone surveillance has been considered relatively permissible ever since, giving law enforcement significant leeway in which they can soy.

The EFF claims that unmanned aerial systems have provoked a crisis in civil liberties. Some are equipped with live-feed video cameras, infrared and thermal sensors, and radar technology. Some are fitted with cameras that can scan whole cities, or focus on individual subjects in startling detail. A few of the more high-tech models feature wi-fi crackers and fake cell phone towers to intercept texts and phone calls.

But there has been resistance from various groups against granting police this level of observance, particularly from the Black Lives Matter movement who see it as another method in which cops can discriminate against and persecute minorities. Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of Georgetown University's Privacy and Technology Centre, stated "People of colour have long been the targets of government surveillance - but today's technology makes it more concerning than ever. Communities are being confronted with the very real possibility that law enforcement is tracking them wherever they go - at work, school, places of worship and political gatherings. People need to feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and this new effort is an important step in the process of taking back control."

Police, however, are adamant that their drone use is legal and constitutional and that use of them has led to numerous high-profile arrests. In a recent interview with Tech Republic, Chief of Police for West Fargo PD Michael Reitan claimed that the drones have been used to protect police officers and ensure their safety, as well as giving police the opportunity to make more informed decisions when dealing with felons.

Reitan stated: "There have been a vocal few who think that it's totally inappropriate. I think that, in part, is because they equate the police use of drones with the military use of drones. Obviously, we're not looking to use them as an offensive weapon. We're looking to use them as an observation platform ... It's a new technology, and some people just fear the new technology without a clear understanding of what the law enforcement can be."

I suppose that drones are like any other resource: they can be used responsibly to protect the masses, they can be exploited for selfish reasons, or used as a method of suppression and control. Ultimately, it comes down to who uses the drones. This is what determines whether or not they are a tool for justice or not. For my part, I'll be keeping an eye on the sky to see if there's anything hovering over the top of my head.