Police drones are already a dystopian horror story straight out of the pages of 1984, but now they’re even beginning to think for themselves.
In recent years, police departments have started relying on flying drones equipped with artificial intelligence in their day-to-day operations. A weekend New York Times report provides a glimpse into how that shapes out in practice, and, spoiler alert, it’s just as disconcerting as you can imagine. Take this event, for instance, when officers in Chula Vista, California, respond to a 911 call about a man sleeping in a stolen car with visible drug paraphernalia and use a drone to help chase him down:
When the man left the car, carrying a gun and a bag of heroin, a nearby police car had trouble following as he sprinted across the street and ducked behind a wall. But as he threw the gun into a dumpster and hid the bag of heroin, the drone, hovering above him, caught everything on camera. When he slipped through the back door of a strip mall, exited through the front door and ran down the sidewalk, it caught that, too.
Watching the live video feed, an officer back at headquarters relayed the details to the police on the scene, who soon caught the man and took him into custody. Later, they retrieved the gun and the heroin. And after another press of the button, the drone returned, on its own, to the roof.
The Chula Vista police department started its Drone as First Responder program two years ago, the first program of its kind in the nation, and has launched more than 4,100 flights since then, per the Times. The department uses drones to respond to as many as 15 emergency calls per day and police are able to oversee roughly one-third of the city from two drone launch sites. Officers are hoping to add a third pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which would expand the program’s coverage to the rest of the 52-square-mile city.
Police have been incorporating manually powered drones into their arsenals for years, but the latest models can literally fly themselves thanks to innovations in the drone and self-driving vehicle industries. At $35,000 a pop, which includes the long-range cameras and other sensors and software the drone comes with, they’re significantly more cost-effective than spending millions on helicopters and pilots. Their design also allows for socially distant policing to limit exposure amid the coronavirus pandemic. Departments in three other cities, two in California and one in Georgia, have adopted Drone as First Responder programs in recent months, the Times reports.
Of course, the idea of automating policing raises some huge red flags, especially at a time when there have been widespread protests against police violence and calls for reform. Chula Vista police treat both officer bodycam footage and drone video as evidence, so they can’t be released to the public without approval, Capt. Don Redmond told the outlet. The department also secured a waiver from the FAA for relaxed drone regulations, per the Times. Their drones, which are controlled by an officer at the station after a pilot oversees the launch process, can fly as much as 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) away from the launch site, whereas FAA regulations require operators to fly their drones within their line of sight to avoid causing issues with other aircraft.
In a demonstration for the Times, one officer showed how the drone could track a person or vehicle on its own with the press of a button. The drone’s manufacturer, Skydio, has long offered customers the option for their drones to follow them automatically, but the feature takes on a much more worrying context in the hands of authorities. Especially with little to no oversight from local legislators; Redmond said that the department doesn’t need the city’s approval to expand its drone program, though it does notify the community about updates as a courtesy.
Privacy advocates have expressed concern that police could use this tech to discriminate against certain communities with targeted enforcement or crackdown on protests calling for police reform. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology told the Times:
“Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection. Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.”
For his part, Redmond said the department does not use drones for “routine patrols” and refrains from deploying drones at Black Lives Matter protests because it goes against internal policy.
Given the police’s track record for blatantly abusing their power and taking advantage of the latest gadgets to cross into quasi-legal territory, it’s little wonder people are wary that their newest toy will turn into a privacy nightmare. I guess we’ll have to change the acronym to AACAB: All (automated) cops are bastards.