It used to be that if you looked up at the sky, especially in the suburbs, all you were likely to see flying would be birds. That’s no longer true. As drones become ubiquitous, it’s just as probable that you’ll see a drone. They have become a part of everyday life and are commonly used by government agencies, including — more and more often — police.
A new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union shows just how many drones government agencies operate. And while we know the number of drones that are in use, we don’t know with any transparency what they are being used for or what regulations and policies guide their use.
According to the NYCLU, there are 530 active drones registered to 85 different governmental agencies in New York state. The New York State Police Department has the most, with 119. The Nassau County Police Department has the most drones registered of any local department, with 33 in active use, while the nearby Suffolk County Police Department has only four drones. The NYPD has 19.
Donna Lieberman, executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, has something to say about that: “Unregulated use of drones threatens New Yorkers’ privacy and safety, further creating a society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities”. “Without public oversight and legislation to curtail drone use, the threat of constant police surveillance by drones equipped with invasive technologies will become our new normal.”
Lieberman is not likely to get an answer to her questions. Recently, Patch reached out to local police departments to find out what their policies are on using drones. The Nassau County police did not respond and Suffolk County police said the information would have to be obtained through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
New York State Police say the drones are used to keep citizens and police officers safe.
“The State Police use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for law enforcement and public safety missions. The UAS provide increased flexibility and a significant cost savings when compared to our manned aircraft (helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes), offer reduced response times, and can be used in dangerous situations and environments, including natural disasters, keeping troopers out of harm’s way,” Beau Duffy, the director of public information for the state police, said in a statement to Patch.
“Since our first group of UAS became operational in 2017, they have been used to locate missing persons, to make damage assessments for natural disasters including floods, to search for evidence and document crime scenes, and enhance security at large public events. They are also used to document and reconstruct serious motor vehicle crashes far more efficiently than previous methods, resulting in shorter road closures, reducing the impact on motorists.”
State police also have an official policy on what drones can be used for, what information can be collected and how that information can be used.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is not reassured by the NYPD statement and maintains that the unregulated use of drones is a privacy concern for residents. As drones grow more advanced, so do their surveillance capabilities. They can fly high enough to be undetected, yet still recognize faces and license plates on the ground.
Drones can also be equipped with thermal imaging, facial recognition software, autonomous flying capabilities and microphones that can record personal conversations. In short, drones can completely invade your privacy.
The NYCLU is advocating the passage of a bill that is currently in the state legislature. The “Protect Our Privacy Act” would prohibit drone surveillance of protests and other events and activities protected by the First Amendment, and require a search warrant before drones are used in police investigations. It would also prohibit drones from using facial recognition software, weapons, or crowd control devices. The legislation would also set rules for public access, retention, and deletion of drone-collected data.