Few Privacy Limitations Exist on How Police Use Drones

Robert Mandel

Only 14 states require law enforcement get a warrant to use drones for surveillance.

()

As drones become cheaper and more capable, more police departments across the country are asking for and getting federal approval to use them for law enforcement.

But the Federal Aviation Administration only takes safety into consideration when it grants a law enforcement agency approval to use drones, leaving privacy protections to legislation—which, depending on the state in question, may or may not exist.

Agencies as large as the Michigan State Police and as small as the Grand Forks County [N.D.] Sheriff's Department have received FAA approval to use drones. Most departments use them for missions like search-and-rescue or for photographing a crime scene or an accident site.

But unless a law enforcement agency is within one of the 14 states that have passed privacy legislation limiting how police can use drones, there's little in theory keeping it from using a drone for a less innocuous end—such as surveillance without a warrant. "While the federal government retains responsibility for the airspace, under most circumstances a state/local government can impose restrictions on the agencies for which it's responsible," an FAA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Members in the House and Senate introduced bills in the previous Congress that would have required police everywhere in the country to obtain a warrant before using drones for surveillance, but the bills died at the end of the year.

"In the states that don't require warrants, it's pretty much a Wild West" in terms of what's allowed, says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's nothing stopping a police department from using [drones] in all kinds of ways to spy, except for the Constitution."

Within that unregulated "Wild West," police have very different approaches to their drone programs. One of the longest-running law enforcement drone programs is at the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Colorado. Ben Miller, its director, says the department has a 17-page policy that outlines when and how it can use drones and for how long it retains data.

The department has never run a surveillance mission with its drones, Miller says, which are generally used for search-and-rescue and crime-scene photography. "If we had a need to look into an area where someone would have a legitimate expectation of privacy, we'd get a warrant," he says.

Colorado is one of the states without any legislation about drones at all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which means that the limitations on the Mesa County drone program were instituted at the department's prerogative.

Unlike the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, some law enforcement agencies have been less than forthcoming with their drone programs. Last year, the San Jose Police Department in Californiasecretly bought a $7,000 drone, and was faced with uproar in the community when freedom-of-information requests brought the purchase to light six months later.

The police department said the drone was meant for helping bomb technicians access hard-to-reach places, but left the door open for using the drone to address "dangers such as active shooters, hostage taking, or other such tactical situations where lives might be in immediate danger."

And this December, the sheriff in Alameda County, Calif., revealed that he spent $97,000 of his own department's money to buy a pair of drones after he was barred from using federal funds to make the purchase. The sheriff told the San Francisco Chronicle that the drone won't be used for surveillance "in any shape, manner or form," but California, like Colorado, has no state law that requires warrants for surveillance.

The California state assembly passed a bill last year that would have required police to obtain a warrant to fly drones in any event other than an "emergency situation." But Gov. Jerry Brownvetoed it in September, because he said the exceptions the bill allowed "appear to be too narrow."

While advocates are worried that law enforcement could use drones in ways that violate citizens' privacy, there's little fear that they're being abused yet. "Safety restrictions are so strict that most police departments are still using them in quite limited ways," the ACLU's Stanley said. "This is still an issue of looking down the road to what we know is coming."

The technology is new enough that police groups are still grappling with its implications and limitations. "We're doing some research right now to come up with some model policy," said John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association. "We don't have a statement or opinion on it at this point."

Miller, who runs the drone program at the sheriff's office in Mesa County, says he often hears from other law enforcement agencies who need help getting their drone program off the ground. But there's no formal coordination: "It's all very word-of-mouth," he said, and suggested that others find him simply by searching the Internet.

For the time being, privacy advocates are not focusing on fighting for federal legislation. "For activists, it's generally easier to do things at the local and state level," says Nadia Kayyali of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and free speech advocacy organization. "Any fight at the local level is more likely to see results, but also does take a much more significant investment in time."

Image via Robert Mandel/Shutterstock.com
X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.