What’s Wrong With Police Drones?


Recently the online journal Slate carried the news that DJI, the world’s largest maker of
consumer drones, is teaming with Axon, which sells more body cameras to police
in the U. S. than anyone else.  Their
joint venture, called Axon Air, plans to sell drones to law-enforcement
agencies and couple them to Axon’s cloud-based database called Evidence.com,
which maintains files of video and other information gathered by police departments
across the country.  Privacy experts
interviewed about this development expressed concerns that when drone-generated
video of crowds is processed by artificial-intelligence face-recognition
software, the privacy of even law-abiding citizens will be further
compromised. 

Is this new development a real threat to privacy, or is it
just one more step down a path we’ve been treading for so long that in the long
run it won’t make any difference?  To
answer that question, we need to have a good idea of what privacy means in the
context of the type of surveillance that drones can do.

The Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution asserts
“[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers,
and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . . “  The key word is “unreasonable,” and
due to reasons both jurisprudential and technological, the meaning of that word
has changed over time.  What it has meant
historically is that before searching a person’s private home, officers of the
law must obtain a search warrant from a judge after explaining the reasons why
they think such a search may turn up something illegal. 

But drones don’t frisk people—they can’t generally see
anything that anybody at the same location of the drone couldn’t see.  So as a result, there are few restrictions if
any against simply taking pictures of people who are out in public places such
as streets, sidewalks, parks, and other venues that drones can easily access.  As a result, security cameras operated both
by law enforcement personnel and by private entities have proliferated to the
extent that in many parts of the U. S., you can’t walk down the street without
leaving evidence that you did so in a dozen or so different places. 

This capability has proved its value in situations such as
terrorist bombings, where inspection of videos after a tragedy has provided
valuable evidence.  But the price we have
paid is a sacrifice of privacy so that the rare malefactor can be caught on camera.

So far, this sacrifice seems to be worth while.  I’m not aware of a lot of cases in which
someone who wasn’t breaking the law or looked like they were, has been
persecuted or had their privacy violated by the misuse of privately-owned
security cameras.  There may be the odd
case here and there, but generally speaking, such data is accessed only when a
crime has occurred, and those responsible for reviewing camera data have done a
good job of concentrating on genuine suspects and not misusing what they find.

Is there any reason that the same situation won’t obtain if
police forces begin using drone-captured video, and integrating it into
Evidence.com, the Axon cloud-based evidence database?  Again, it all depends on the motives of those
who can access the data.

If law enforcement agencies don’t abuse such access and use
it only for genuine criminal investigations, then it doesn’t seem like moving
security cameras to drones is going to make much difference to the average
law-abiding citizen.  If anything, a
drone is a lot more visible than a security camera stuck inside a light fixture
somewhere, so people will be more
aware that they’re being watched than otherwise. 

But my concern is not so much for misuse in the U. S. as it
is for misuse in countries which do not have the protection of the Bill of
Rights, such as China, the home country of the drone-maker DJI. 

The Chinese government has announced plans to develop
something called a Social Credit System, and has already put elements of it in
place.  According to Wikipedia, the plans
are for every citizen and business to have some sort of ranking rather like a
credit score in the U. S.  Only the types
of behavior considered for the ranking range far beyond whether you simply pay
your bills on time, and include how much you play Internet games, how you shop,
and other legal activities.  Already the
Social Credit System has been used to ban certain people from taking domestic
airline flights, attending certain schools, and getting certain kinds of
jobs. 

While I have no evidence to support this, one can easily
imagine a drone monitoring a Chinese citizen who goes to church, for example,
and sending his or her social credit score into the basement as a result.  So whether a given surveillance technology
poses a threat to the privacy and the freedom of the individual depends as much
on the good will (or lack of it) of those who use the data as much as it does
on the technology itself.

Some groups in the U. S. have little confidence in the
average police organization already, and see drones as yet another weapon that
will be turned against them.  Genuine
cases of police who abuse their authority should not be tolerated, but
statistics can be used by both sides in a controversy about arrest rates of
minority populations to show either that blatant discrimination goes on (as it
surely does in some cases), or to show that because certain groups historically
commit more crimes, they naturally show up more in the category of suspicious
persons that tend to be interrogated and surveilled.  There is no easy answer to this problem,
which is best dealt with on a local level by identifying particular problems
and solving them one by one.  Blanket
condemnations either of police or of minority groups does no good.

When all is said and done, the question really is, do we
trust those who use surveillance drones and the databases where the drone data
will wind up?  Any society that functions
has to have a minimum level of trust among its citizens and in its vital
institutions, including those that enforce the law.  Surveillance drones can help catch criminals,
no doubt.  But if they are abused to
persecute law-abiding private citizens, or even if they are just perceived to
contribute to such abuse, surveillance drones could end up causing more
problems than they solve.



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