Sunday, February 26, 2012

Police Surveillance Drones: Time to Draw a Line?

Like or not, domestic use of those surveillance drones that were developed by the military is coming. Many potential users are interested in them, in many cases for uses that are plainly legitimate, but according to this article the "hungriest" these by far are "the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies."

Is this anything to worry about? Of course not, says big business and their friends in big government:
"Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around something that they're interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want," said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. "I don't understand all the comments about the Big Brother thing."
The idea is that the only relevant difference between a helicopter and a drone is expense, not privacy. This statement is plainly false, as you can see from the following quote from the same article:
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.
Recording sound and video from the vantage of a residential window ledge is treated as criminal when done by a civilian. We are looking at something that potentially carries information-gathering capacity of the police way beyond what is supported by helicopters and planes.

There are clearly forms of surveillance that are okay. Though some object to them, I don't mind fixed recording cameras at busy intersections and turnpike tollbooths. I am glad that they have helped in the apprehension of vicious criminals and have documented police brutality as well.

Is there a principled line to draw here?

As we ordinarily understand it, the right to privacy is very flexible: it is easy to give up. At the moment I am putting on my necktie tomorrow morning, I will have a right, good against everyone in the world, that the not see my tie. As soon as I open the front door and step out onto a public sidewalk, I have given up that right.

A legal phrase you often see here is "reasonable expectation of privacy." I don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a busy intersection, which is why both private citizens and government officials may observe and even photograph me there.

If the system gives the cops the right to freely use these drones, as it has allowed them to freely use military-style armor and weapons and freely administer devastating electric shocks in the field, then the area of your life with a reasonable expectation of privacy will shrink and, with it, your right to privacy may be greatly constricted.

Unless people make an effort to stop it, this is most likely what will happen.

In current law, the cops may search your home without a warrant if evidence of a crime is "in plain view," and "plain view" includes seeing it (for instance, a marijuana plant in your back yard) from an airplane or helicopter. Shall we extend that to include seeing it via one of those hummingbird drones buzzing around in your yard? If we do, there will be a lot more things they can do do you without convincing a judge that they have probable cause, and without getting your permission.
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