Government Eyes In the Sky
In August 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek revealed the existence of a pilot program being operated by the Baltimore Police Department in which small manned aircraft circled over the city all day, using cameras to continuously photograph a 32-square-mile area and giving police the ability to retroactively track any vehicle or pedestrian within that area. It was the ultimate Big Brother “eye in the sky”—and yet the Baltimore police had not notified the public or even the mayor or city council about the program. Revelation of the secret program generated a storm of controversy, and eventually it was put on hold—though in December 2019, the city’s police commissioner announced that the program would be revived.
The technology behind the Baltimore program involves pointing multiple cameras toward the ground and stitching those images together into a single, larger photograph. It also uses computers to automatically correct for the changing camera angles of the circling planes as well as factors such as topographic variances and lens distortion.
The result is a surveillance system of enormous power, able to reconstruct the movements of all visible vehicles and pedestrians across a city—where they start and finish each journey and the paths they take in between. It can allow tracking of a great proportion of people’s movements throughout a city.
The Baltimore program and brief tests in other cities have been run by a private firm called Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS). The company’s surveillance is usually carried out using manned aircraft. But if Americans decide to allow this kind of ongoing aerial surveillance over their communities, drones will almost certainly replace manned aircraft, if and when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permits the kind of flights involved.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become an increasingly common presence in the past decade. Their integration into daily life is poised to reach a new level as their technological capabilities and legal latitude for operation expand. That increased presence will likely bring certain conveniences and efficiencies but will also make drones an increasingly powerful tool for surveillance. As that happens, drones will become a tool of growing interest to local, state, and federal law enforcement—and the importance of understanding just what the capabilities of these machines are will likewise grow.
Drones themselves are not capable of any surveillance. They are a platform on which operators can attach surveillance equipment. The only limits are the types of tools that have been invented, how practical they are for use in the air, and their size and weight. Among the equipment that can be attached to drones are GPS, radar, lidar, rangefinders, magnetic field change sensors, sonar, radio frequency sensors, chemical and biochemical sensors, and, of course, cameras. Many cameras include thermal and other sensors that collect signals beyond the visual part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Drones could also be used to carry equipment for electronic signals collection. For example, law enforcement has in the past decade begun using devices known as cell-site simulators (popularly known as “Stingrays”) that are essentially fake cellphone towers. Like real towers, they broadcast a signal that prompts any mobile phone in range to identify itself to the device. They can thus be used to collect the identities of people in a particular area en masse. The FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and other law enforcement agencies have acknowledged that they sometimes use an aerial version of these devices, known informally as “dirtboxes,” on manned aircraft. We don’t know of any deployments on drones, but as extended drone flights become increasingly possible, such deployments are very likely.
In July 2016, a gunman opened fire at police officers in Dallas, Texas, killing five and wounding seven others. The shooter was cornered in a parking garage, and when negotiations “broke down” after a number of hours, police said, the department repurposed a bomb-defusing ground robot with an explosive charge and drove it near the gunman before detonating the charge, killing the gunman. The incident kicked off a national discussion about police using “killer robots.” Under a 1985 Supreme Court case, Tennessee v. Garner, as well as other cases, the police may not constitutionally use deadly force unless someone represents an imminent threat to others and the use of lethal force is a reasonable last resort.
While lethal drones have been deployed for years by the military overseas, efforts to arm domestic drones are widely (and wisely) seen as beyond the pale, and for the most part lawmakers and law enforcement officials have not yet seriously contemplated using armed drone
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