The Los Angeles Police Department's acquisition of two Draganflyer drones has Los Angeles buzzing about the possibility of Big Brother watching you from overhead.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said yesterday that the unmanned aerial vehicles would be used only for "tactical events" such as SWAT standoffs and searches for outstanding suspects believed to have just been involved in serious crimes.
See also: The LAPD Now Has Drones
But while Beck has said he was prepared to work with the ACLU to come up with a sensible drone policy, the organization has its reservations. Its attorneys imagine an L.A. in which drones could track your every move:
"There can be more of them, and they can be used for investigations that wouldn't ordinarily justify the resources of other kinds of aerial support," says ACLU senior staff attorney Peter Bibring. "You might have a situation where they would be used for routine investigations because they're inexpensive."
In fact, Bibring argues that the department could conceivably deploy drones in situations far from the extraordinary ones described by Beck because those "tactical events" already draw major resources from the department, including helicopters and boots on the ground.
What would be the point of adding drones to that mix? The logic, Bibring says, has the unmanned aerial vehicles buzzing overhead to track people who might not normally get the attention of helicopters and specialized units because of limited resources.
The little, 39-inch-wide devices can be flown with a handheld, game-controller-like device. Helicopters use two-person crews, require major maintenance, and can cost thousands of dollars an hour to fly.
"They save money," Bibring says of drones.
Here are some ways drones could be used in Los Angeles (and we emphasize the word could because Beck has emphasized that their use would have strict limits):
5. To police the police. The LAPD is already rolling out an ambitious program that seeks to equip all of its officers with body cameras. Why not also follow their every move with a drone? Some cops, of course, wouldn't like it too much. The department's Workers' Compensation Fraud Unit already shadows some officers it suspects are defrauding the taxpayers by taking time off work for nonexistent injuries. The department could, feasibly, send out drones to check on off-duty employees, too.
4. To take down your license plate info from the skies. The LAPD has license plate recognition cameras on some patrol cars and, as we've reported, the department hasn't been all that forthcoming about what it's doing with all that data. That information could put your car near the scene of a crime. Imagine a world in which a drone was constantly flying overhead, sucking in plate data and location coordinates for who-knows-what reasons.
Bibring says drones could feasibly be equipped not only with license-plate readers but with infrared cameras that see body-heat signatures behind walls, "facial recognition gear, and video analysis that allows the connection of different video streams to follow a person moving from one cam to another."
Sounds a little like Enemy of the State.
3. To track persons of interest. Sometimes detectives have a hunch, but it's not enough to get a charge or even to call someone an official suspect. In the past the department has tracked persons of interest it believed to be possible bank robbers. Having a less-expensive option like a drone could significantly widen the parameters of whom cops spy on. "They could be following somebody around to see where they're going or what they're doing," Bibring says.
2. To record traffic violations. We already know how beloved and ineffective local red-light cameras are. But despite the fact that you can ignore red-light camera tickets issued within the county of Los Angeles, the unmanned policing of traffic violations is only growing more pervasive. In the U.K. some roadways feature speed-trap cameras that will snap your photo if you drive above the limit. Drones could also do that job, tracking violators, for example, at major intersections. The devices could be used not just for red-light infractions but also for any number of things: crossing the double yellow, turning left after a light has changed, even equipment violations. It's possible. And the resulting fines certainly could be a boon to government.
And the number one way drones could be used to spy is ...
1. For predictive policing. Here's one of the scariest aspects of drone-based policing, if you ask Bibring of the ACLU. The LAPD already uses predictive policing to deploy officers to neighborhoods and even to specific blocks that are criminal hot-spots according to the department's COMPSTAT data.
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Why not save some cash and just fly an unmanned aerial vehicle 24/7 over high-crime barrios? Of course, that wouldn't necessarily be fair to the locals, and the increased scrutiny could reenforce the negative - that criminals abound in these areas.
"The fear is that this can lead to a situation where a city has standing aerial surveillance where everything is recorded from above to catch maybe a few people committing crimes," Bibring says. "It might be an entire neighborhood. If it's one with criminal problems, they might see a drone overhead watching everything."
"The question is," he says, "whether it's worth it."