New Yorkers kicking back with beers and burgers this Labor Day weekend could have an unexpected guest hovering over their backyards. Starting Friday, the New York Police Department says it will start dispatching drones to monitor potential disturbances at parties or other large gatherings. Privacy and civil liberty experts told Gizmodo the practice is a bridge too far and may violate local surveillance laws.
“If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party,” NYPD Assistant Commissioner Kaz Daughtry, said during a press conference Thursday.
Daughtry said the drones will respond to both “non-priority calls and priority calls.” That means the drones won’t just be used for potentially dangerous 911 emergencies. Instead, Daughty explained the flying devices could be used to respond to a 311 call where a caller describes a disturbance at a large party or backyard. The drones will start their search Friday evening and continue through the Labor Day/West Indian Day weekend.
“We’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up, go check on the party, to make sure if the call is founded or not, and we’ll be able to determine how many resources we need to send to that location for this weekend,” Daughtry added.
New York mayor Eric Adams defended the practice during a press conference Friday where he said the drones aren’t going to be “looking into someone’s grill.” The mayor said the drones would respond to loud music complaints, fly overhead to surveil the area, and determine whether or not it’s necessary to send police or crisis management teams to the location.
“We are now going to become the leader in how to properly use drones,” Adams told a room a reporters. When asked to respond to privacy concerns, Adams responded “we need to push back on the sci-fi aspects of drones.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. New York’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information referred us to the press conference and past reports on NYPD’s drone use.
Privacy advocates sounded alarm bells following Daughtry’s comments, alleging the NYPD’s sudden deployment of drones violates privacy and may run afoul of recently passed surveillance laws.
“This plan just doesn’t fly,” Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn told Gizmodo. “Even before these drones got off the ground, the NYPD already broke the law, violating the 2020 POST Act, which requires public notice and comment before launching new surveillance programs.”
Fox Cahn is referring to the The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, a 2020 law intended to increase police transparency of surveillance technologies by requiring agencies to publicly announce plans to use new tech at least 90 days ahead of doing so. The law was passed just months after it was discovered some officers in the NYPD were using a controversial facial recognition tool by the private firm Clearview AI to help identify potential criminal suspects. The drones appear to go a step further, potentially responding to domestic disturbance complaints. Neither the NYPD nor the Mayor’s office responded to Gizmodo’s questions asking if this practice would continue past Labor Day.
“Spying on backyard BBQs is clearly a step too far for most New Yorkers.” Fox Cahn added. Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Fox Cahn’s assessment in a recent interview with the Associated Press and compared the NYPD’s deployment of drones to a “sci-fi-inspired scenario.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, himself a former police captain, has embraced the NYPD’s use of new surveillance technologies to carry out his supposedly tough-on-crime agenda. Since taking office in January 2022, Adams has promoted adding 6,500 surveillance cameras to subway cars and embraced police use of controversial facial recognition software. Adams has publicly described privacy concerns over these technologies as overblown. Crime reportedly increased nearly 24% during the first year of Adams’ administration.
“It blows my mind how much we have not embraced technology, and part of that is because many of our electeds are afraid,” Adams said in an interview with Politico. “Anything technology they think, ‘Oh it’s a boogeyman. It’s Big Brother watching you.’ No, Big Brother is protecting you.”
Drones are a big part of Adams’s envisioned high-tech police overall. Last year, according to the Associated Press, NYPD used drones for emergency or public safety purposes 124 times this year. That’s up from just four reported times last year. The mayor similarly greenlit the purchase of multiple dog-like robots from Boston Dynamics, despite those same robots amassing a groundswell of public criticism less than two years prior.
Update, 1:55 p.m. EST: Added statement from Eric Adams.