Police Drones Are Watching, And In At Least One State, They're Armed

May 23, 2017

At least 15 states have allowed police agencies to pilot surveillance drones in the name of public safety, including one that can carry weapons.

This week on 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talks to the Cato Institute’s Matthew Feeney from his office in Washington D.C.

Feeney says those technological toys come with some serious privacy concerns.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: When I hear the word drone I think of hobby helicopters, those sort of things that you see people playing with in the parks. Is that what we're talking about here with police drones?

MATTHEW FEENEY: We are talking about devices that are similar to those but slightly more sophisticated. We're talking here about police drones that can be attached with cameras, that despite the toys you might be able to pick up from a local store, are capable of picking out faces and other details from quite a considerable distance, raising all sorts of interesting policy questions.

HARRIS: So how precise are those cameras? What kind of detail would police be able to see?

FEENEY: From a pretty decent distance they'll be able to see who you are (and) where you are. They'll be able to see what kind of car you're driving or perhaps even, given some technology, what you're cooking on the grill on your porch.

HARRIS: Now this could be a good thing, it strikes me. You know, will police be able to catch bad guys in the midst of criminal activity in real time – things that they wouldn't know about otherwise?

FEENEY: Undoubtedly. Drones are a valuable tool for law enforcement. They can help with investigations of wanted suspects – active shooters (or) people who have taken others hostage. They could also be valuable in investigating toxic spills or car crashes and other crime scenes. But we should be wary of the fact that they also pose significant privacy concerns.

HARRIS: What kind of privacy concerns?

FEENEY: Ordinary surveillance that police have been using helicopters and airplanes for. But I'm also very concerned about advances in technology and how they could allow police in the not too distant future to keep cities under constant surveillance.

HARRIS: Like a lot of states, Pennsylvania would have laws against stalking or harassment, wiretapping (and) privacy invasion, but those don't apply to law enforcement. What kind of legislative fixes should there be to protect the rest of us when drones are used?

FEENEY: In my own work, I've outlined a few legislative proposals, such as requiring warrants for police drones, but also bans on weapons being attached to unmanned aerial vehicles.

HARRIS: And how about other kinds of technology that might be affixed to cameras like facial recognition?

FEENEY: Yeah, we should all keep in mind that police drones could be used as a platform for a wide range of surveillance technology, such as license plate readers, facial recognition cameras and Sting Rays.

HARRIS: You mentioned weapons. Is there a state that allows drones to be equipped with weapons?

FEENEY: North Dakota became the first state to legalize the use of so-called “non-lethal weapons” on police drones. But this should worry us given that many supposed “non-lethal weapons” can, in fact, be lethal.

HARRIS: And I imagine your legislative fixes would address this idea of weaponized drones.

FEENEY: I do not think it's a good idea for police to outfit the drones with any weapons, whether those are non-lethal weapons such as Tasers or lethal ones such as traditional firearms.

HARRIS: Do we have any evidence that those non-lethal weapons in North Dakota on drones have been used yet?

FEENEY: I do not have any evidence that they have been, but it certainly would be legal for them to do so.

You can hear more from David Harris’s conversation with Matthey Feeney on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.