Eyes in the Sky: The Impact of Predator Drones on Your Privacy

Back on June 3, 2010, I warned about the possible (mis)uses of inexpensive drone technology and how such gadgets might eventually be harnessed for civilian law enforcement purposes, possibly spying on a pot dealer’s back yard. Turns out I was right. Well, not about the pot, at least not yet.

A scary report in the Los Angeles Times told of how local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone to apprehend three men; the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator. The incident occurred when the suspects refused to turn over several cows that had wandered on to their property. Police showed up, the suspects brandished some shotguns and a pretty tense standoff ensued. marijuana droneThe police left and got themselves a warrant and then called in a Predator drone to fly over the suspect’s land, hovering for four hours, transmitting video and thermal imaging all the while. The next day, police called the drone back for more spying and finally made their move when the drone determined the men were unarmed.

The Predator drones used in this incident are based at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, located in Emerado, North Dakota, and are owned and operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Though the FBI, DEA and a plethora of other federal agencies have used Predator drones on U.S. soil for years for surveillance purposes, this is the first reported incident where local police forces have made use of a Predator drone to watch and then apprehend suspects.

The Los Angeles Times quotes a retired U.S. General who acknowledges that drones are being used “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement.” The Customs and Border Protection agency responsible for the apprehension in the North Dakota incident claim they have a legal authorization to use the drones in such a way. Officials insist that they indicated in their budget requests to Congress that one purpose of purchasing the Predators was for “interior law enforcement support.”

Jane Harman – former Chair of the House Homeland Security Sub-Committee – insists that “no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.” The argument from Customs is that the drones can be used on U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes not because of a new law or regulation, nor because of any Congressional mandate or Executive Order, simply because they inserted the phrase “interior law enforcement support” into their purchase order.

This “interior law enforcement support” hasn’t been limited to North Dakota. A recent article out of Houston discussed the local law enforcement excitement following their acquisition of several drones: “It’s an exciting piece of equipment for us,” Chief Deputy of Montgomery County Sherriff’s Office said. The Sherriff’s Office recently used $300,000 from a federal homeland security grant to purchase a ShadowHawk drone which they hope to take to the air in the coming months. “We envision a lot of its uses primarily in the realm of public safety – looking at recovery of lost individuals and being able to utilize it for fire issues.” However, the police aren’t willing to say the drones might not do more in the future. McDaniel said that one day they may decide to equip the drones to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun.

Kirsten Bokenkamp, spokeswoman for the Houston-based American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, warned of the danger the drones pose. She sensibly pointed out that there are not enough safeguards currently in place to protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. The complaint has so far fallen on deaf ears.

The manufacturers of these unmanned aircraft aren’t stopping to worry about such issues; instead they’re pushing forward and aggressively courting local law enforcement. In their 2011 Annual Report, AeroVironment, Inc. (AV), the nation’s leading manufacturer of small drones, hammers home the message that future growth lies in non-military applications of their product:

As we explore opportunities to develop new markets for our small UAS, such as border surveillance, law enforcement, first response and infrastructure monitoring, we expect further growth through the introduction of UAS technology to non-military applications once rules are established for their safe and effective operation in each country’s national airspace.

The company manufactures drones so small they can be transported in the trunk of a car and launched within minutes. A single police officer could deploy and monitor such a drone. These small drones could help usher in an “Era of Surveillance,” cheap and easy access to drones capable of hovering without detection for far longer than police helicopters.

The drones are vastly different and more powerful than standard police helicopters, the current method of choice for police surveillance from above. A great example is one new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan – the Gorgon Stare, named after the Greek creature of legend whose unblinking eyes turned those who looked at it to stone. According to the Washington Post, it’s “able to scan an area the size of a small town” and is able to “use artificial intelligence [to] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.” One proud U.S. General went on to declare that the “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” No police helicopter that I’ve ever run across has such capabilities and the prospect of the Gorgon Stare making its way to America should give everyone cause for concern.

Beyond such domestic law enforcement missions, the drones are being used everywhere, silent eyes in the sky. According to a recent report, a group dedicated to the abolition of whale hunting, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, used an unmanned aircraft to follow suspected Japanese whalers. Drones are everywhere and apparently have unlimited potential uses. Monitoring by law enforcement, border patrol, whale watching, what’s next? Given new technology whole cities can be kept under surveillance by one tiny drone. Where does this end? Likely with your civil liberties being violated. It’s only a matter of time before a civilian law enforcement agency realizes that the contraptions would be great for checking up on marijuana growing operations. Launch a Predator and have it spend hours noiselessly circling farms, searching for telltale signs of pot production. Police can watch the stream from the comfort of their desk and swoop in after the drone has done the leg work.

The increasing use of drones for an ever-growing list of activities on U.S. soil is troubling and potentially dangerous. This is the definition of a slippery slope and little exists to stop the creep of this surveillance into every facet of law enforcement. Small marijuana growers will have to fear a silent watchman in the sky. Jane Harman, a military hawk by any definition, told the Los Angeles Times that she’s worried, saying “There is no question that this could become something that people will regret.” The use of drones by civilian law enforcement is important and the issue warrants some real attention by legislators and the public alike.

What do you think about this issue?  How long before these drones are out looking for local marijuana gardens?   As the wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, will the defense contractors focus more on marketing these drones to your local police department?  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

One Response to “Eyes in the Sky: The Impact of Predator Drones on Your Privacy”

  • Geoff:

    Whether its computers, VCRs, or what have you, technology get cheaper with time, and before long every police department will have their own little portable drone. Yes, to start off they will use it to go after major felonies, and then the drones will be used to look out for every little misdemeanor.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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