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Protecting Civil and Human Rights

These Police Drones are Watching You

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky/POGO)

In recent years, we’ve seen significant efforts to roll back the mass surveillance that technological advances have permitted on an unprecedented scale. In 2015, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act to ban bulk collection of sensitive information such as Americans’ communications metadata. And this year, the Supreme Court ruled that tracking an individual’s location from their cell phone required a warrant, creating a privacy protection even though it involved public activities. But amid these victories for privacy rights, another form of surveillance has been quite literally rising up all around us: aerial surveillance. And this snooping from the skies most often comes in the form of police departments across the country deploying powerful drones.

Aerial surveillance and the broad use of drones threaten to undermine the progress made in recent years to prevent unreasonable location tracking and government stockpiling of sensitive, personal information. With existing and emerging technologies, government may be able to use aerial surveillance to track our movements en masse and catalog participation in constitutionally protected activities such as protests, religious ceremonies, and political rallies. 

Aerial Surveillance Can Be Incredibly Invasive

Existing technology that is affordable and in wide use allows law enforcement to spy on individuals over huge distances. The most prominent example is the DJI Zenmuse Z30 camera, which can be affixed to commonly used drone models such as the Inspire 2 and the Matrice. Chinese manufacturer DJI, the drone maker most favored by U.S. law enforcement, promotes the Zenmuse Z30 by describing it as “the most powerful integrated aerial zoom camera on the market with 30x optical and 6x digital zoom for a total magnification up to 180x.”

Demonstration of digital and optical zoom capacity with footage claims to be taken at a 3.7 mile distance. (Note: The video claims to use a Matrice 600 drone with a DJI Zenmuse Z30 drone camera)
(Source: SkyLink Japan / YouTube)

The implications of this are profound, and frightening. With this technology, law enforcement can use small and inconspicuous drones to snoop on individuals from thousands of feet away, and even watch activities occurring several miles away with a good degree of precision. In an aerial space, these drones can easily move to adjust view and overcome obstacles that make this type of long distance surveillance impossible from ground level.

Invasive Aerial Surveillance is Cheap

In addition to the surveillance powers modern drones possess in terms of long-distance monitoring, automated identification, and automated tracking, technological advances are making aerial surveillance an exponentially cheaper option, and thus something that can be done more broadly and on a larger scale. The Inspire 2 costs around $3,000, and equipping it with the powerful Z30 zoom camera costs an additional $3,000. In comparison, police helicopters cost roughly $500,000 to $3,000,000. The helicopter’s operating costs of $200 to $400 per hour and the maintenance costs increase the expense of this traditional aerial surveillance tool even more.

With this cost differential, a department could potentially purchase a fleet of 500 drones in lieu of a single police chopper—a swarm of devices that can watch individuals without notice from thousands of feet away, use software to identify people in an automated manner, and follow them without human piloting. As technology improves, the potential power of this type of fleet will only increase, creating the possibility of a massive surveillance umbrella permanently buzzing over America’s cities and towns.

Invasive Aerial Surveillance Is Widespread

While the greatest risks posed by drones and aerial surveillance lay ahead as tech continues to advance and becomes more powerful, easier to automate, and cheaper, there are already significant threats. Drones, which already possess so much surveillance power, are widespread and broadly in use by police departments throughout the country.

Map of Inspire 2 and Matrice drones (which can be equipped with the X30) in use by police departments throughout the country.
(Source: Google Maps screenshot created based on data from the Center for the Study of the Drones at Bard College)

According to research by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, as of May 2018, at least 910 state and local public safety agencies have purchased drones (based on Federal Aviation Administration and other records). Of those, 599 are law enforcement agencies. The survey identified the make and model of drones owned by 627 of the 910 agencies. Of the 627, 523 have drones made by DJI. Of those, over 200 agencies fly either the Inspire or Matrice models, which can be equipped with the Z30 zoom camera.

Invasive Aerial Surveillance Can Identify You

With its capacity for precise zooming at short distances, aerial surveillance can, in combination with other automated identification technologies, allow for effortless cataloging of individuals and their activities. There are two prominent automated identification technologies that could allow for easy identification from immense distances: automated license plate readers and facial recognition technology. These technologies are already in wide use by government agencies. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains a nationwide net of automated license plate readers to track individuals, and the FBI already maintains a facial recognition database of fifty percent of American adults and permits law enforcement from dozens of states to use it.

Positive automated license plate reader identification from drone footage claimed to be taken at a 1200 ft distance. (Note: The video claims to use a Matrice 100 drone with a DJI Zenmuse Z30 drone camera)
(Source: Sharon Arenhaim / YouTube)

This means that the government could surreptitiously watch sensitive activities and catalog individuals. Everyone entering or exiting a political meeting, union meeting, or lawyer’s office could be identified and catalogued. Or a drone could zoom in on and scan all the cars parked outside a medical facility or church, and create a list of attendees in seconds with no human effort. These fears are not hypothetical. American Civil Liberties Union research efforts exposed the fact that the FBI was deploying aerial surveillance to record the activities of protesters in Baltimore. Vendors marketing drones to police departments highlight their ability to pick individuals out of a public gathering such as a political rally as a feature, not a cause of potential abuse.

FBI aerial surveillance of protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
(Photo: Still from FBI footage / ACLU)

Amplifying these risks is a recent partnership between DJI and Axon, one of the leading producers of police body cameras. Axon also provides cloud computing services designed to allow law enforcement to sync data from a variety of sources, including cameras, and has spent years developing facial recognition technology for its products. With this partnership, which will allow DJI drone footage to sync with the Axon system, police drones with built-in facial recognition technology could soon become the norm.

Invasive Aerial Surveillance Can Track You

Identifying individuals from aerial surveillance footage appears to be on a path to automation and is occurring on a mass scale absent need for human involvement. But is the impact of drones on privacy limited by requiring a person to remotely pilot them and actively work to follow the target being tracked? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

DJI has developed a feature for many of its drones—including models like the Inspire 2 that are commonly used by police—to allow drones to lock onto and automatically follow individuals. This technique, called “Active Track,” enables the drone to automatically follow moving items, including people, absent any human control of the drone. DJI drones in Active Track operate in a mode that allows the drone to travel at roughly 20 miles per hour, more than enough to keep pace with an individual on foot. Some drones are even programmed to automatically avoid obstacles while continuously tracking their locked-on target.

Active Track allows drones to tag and track individuals without human piloting. (Note: The video claims to use a DJI Spark drone with attached camera)
(Source: DC Rainmaker / YouTube)

As with automated identification, Active Track technology decreases reliance on human labor in another aspect of aerial surveillance which has traditionally served as an impediment to mass monitoring of individuals. And this technology will only become more powerful over time.

Drones with “swarm capabilities,” which further enhance automated flight power by allowing a single pilot to control multiple drones, are already in development, such as the military’s Low-Cost Unmanned aerial vehicle Swarming Technology (“LOCUST”). In the future, a single officer might be able to command a large swarm of drones, inconspicuously identifying and following many individuals over a long period of time.

Invasive Aerial Surveillance Can Be Limited

With these serious and growing risks to personal privacy, it’s important that lawmakers begin to take the threats of aerial surveillance more seriously. Luckily, drones can be fairly easily regulated. Several states have placed limits on drone-based surveillance. For example, Florida, Maine, North Dakota, and Virginia have all enacted some form of a warrant requirement for police use of drones, and Rhode Island has proposed legislation prohibiting the use of facial recognition on any images captured by drones. To be fully effective, drone regulations should take into account and allow important public safety uses that don’t threaten privacy rights, like natural disaster response and search and rescue.

Unfortunately, as we’ve previously written, the increasing use of powerful manned aerial surveillance programs remains a serious issue that drone regulations will not solve. Reasonable limits on law enforcement drone use is an excellent way to begin setting reasonable limits on all forms of aerial surveillance, but it is also just the first step in addressing larger civil liberties issues looming above.