Police surveillance by drones is on the rise, posing threats to citizens’ rights to free assembly and undermining constitutional protections against unwarranted searches or seizures. As Nick Mottern reported in August 2020 for Truthout, at least 1,100 US law enforcement agencies across US now own drones, but police use of drones has raised significant concerns from local activist groups across the country and organizations including the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the NAACP, and the United Nations.
An increasing number of police departments now have surveillance drones. A March 2020 study produced by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone identified at least 1,578 law enforcement agencies across the US that have purchased drones. The Bard report noted that the actual number of drones in use is likely higher because many agencies have undisclosed drone programs. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance tracks police surveillance, including drone use, based on public documents and crowdsourcing. Launched in July 2020, EFF’s surveillance atlas already includes more than 1,000 cases in which police departments across the US have used drones. As with the Bard study, the EFF Atlas likely undercounts the actual number of cases, since not all instances get documented or reported.
As Mottern wrote, police across the nation used surveillance drones to monitor Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Mottern’s report documented how participants in BLM protests in Yonkers, New York, were subject to drone surveillance by the Yonkers Police Department.
Mottern’s article reported that police use of drones and other surveillance equipment is driven by the commercial interests of companies such as DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturer that is the leading supplier for US police departments, and Axon International (formerly known as TASER Enterprises) which sells police body cameras. As Mottern reported, Axon, also sells video storage and big data analysis to police departments, through its Evidence.com system, which utilizes Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing system.
As Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University, wrote in a June 2020 article for The Conversation, “Police use of these national security-style surveillance techniques—justified as cost-effective techniques that avoid human bias and error—has grown hand-in-hand with the increased militarization of law enforcement…. [T]hese expansive and powerful surveillance capabilities have exacerbated rather than reduced bias, overreach and abuse in policing, and they pose a growing threat to civil liberties.”
In 2018, more than forty groups, including the ACLU, Color of Change, and the NAACP, called on Axon to submit to forms of ethical review, Mottern reported.
Currently, no federal law regulates police use of drones, which is left to individual states. Both the ACLU and the United Nations have called for stronger regulations. A June 2020 UN report raised concern over how surveillance technology impacts the rights of protestors. Among its specific points, the UN report urged governments to “avoid the use of facial recognition technology to identify those peacefully participating in an assembly, and to refrain from recording footage of protesters unless there are concrete indications participants are engaging in, or will engage in, criminal activity.” Similarly, the ACLU advises that police should only deploy drones, with a warrant, in an emergency, or “when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.”
Nick Mottern, “Over 1,100 Policing Agencies in the US Have Bought Drones Capable of Recording,” Truthout, August 6 2020, https://truthout.org/articles/police-drones-dont-just-watch-protests-they-record-them-with-little-oversight/.
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, “High-Tech Surveillance Amplifies Police Bias and Overreach,” The Conversation, June 12, 2020, https://theconversation.com/high-tech-surveillance-amplifies-police-bias-and-overreach-140225.
Student Researcher: Leslie Rojos Gutierrez (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Mario Venegas (Sonoma State University)
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