A video designed by the manufacturer AeroVironment, shows the flawless execution of Qube, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for law enforcement, in catching an armed suspect. The video shows how easily police officers can monitor the movements of the suspect through the video feed on an electronic tablet. When the officers see the suspect put down his weapon, they order him to walk towards their voice and kneel to the ground. The Qube leads to such an effortless arrest, it is questionable whether police officers are needed at all.
The suspenseful action music in the background enthralls the viewer in an exciting chase to capture an armed suspect. Although the suspect in the video is unnaturally obedient in laying down his weapon and obeying the officer’s vocal commands, it does demonstrate the ability of UAVs to aid in arrests without endangering personnel. It does not, however, address the safety and privacy issues that could ensue from the widespread implementation of UAVs for civilian and local law enforcement use.
Brian Bennett’s article in the LA Times describes how Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke called in a drone from the Grand Forks Air Force Base to spy on three suspects accused of stealing six cattle on a North Dakota farm. Similar to the AeroVironment video, the drone was able to determine when the suspects put down their weapons, allowing the police department to enter the property and make the arrests peacefully.
UAVs are becoming increasingly more popular among law enforcement agencies as well as individual consumers due to their low costs and ability to operate without endangering pilots. NPR’s Brian Naylor outlines the increased demand for UAVs to conduct crop dusting, oil/gas pipeline surveillance, search and rescue, flood mapping, livestock tracking, fighting wildfires, and more. However, before UAVs become widely available, there are many complexities that must be addressed.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the body in charge of administering usage rights for UAVs to non-military parties. Currently, parties like Sheriff Janke who are interested in using UAVs for law enforcement must obtain a Certificate of Authorization by the FAA. However, rules about UAV use in civilian airspace are changing as the FAA faces heavy pressure to issue flying rights openly to civilians and law enforcement officials. The FAA is hesitant to approve these demands based on safety concerns of unmanned aircraft flying in close proximity to other aircraft and the types of technological capabilities equipped to different drones. The FAA is concerned that lost communication between with ground controllers or drones unequipped with collision warning systems could result in a serious accident. These risks, although important, fail to address the most fundamental concern of civilian UAV use: privacy rights.
Without established guidelines, UAVs may be used by law enforcement officials to spy and collect evidence against civilians without a warrant. In 1986, the US Supreme Court ruled in California V. Ciraolo that aerial surveillance without a warrant does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The case involved police officers who took a picture of marijuana plants from a helicopter and used the picture to later obtain a search warrant for the man’s backyard. The court ruled that the man’s backyard was not protected under the Fourth Amendment because it could be seen by the naked eye within public navigable airspace. This seems to affirm the constitutionality of using UAVs in law enforcement investigations; however, UAVs can fly well above the 1,000 foot altitude of the police helicopter in California V. Ciraolo and see details not discernible to the naked eye. The California V. Ciraolo case does not make any distinction on whether UAVs equipped with thermal, UV or see-through imaging sensors like those used by the controversial airport body scanners violate the Fourth Amendment.
Another 1986 ruling, Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, comes closer to addressing these issues. The December 2011 ACLU report on protecting privacy from aerial surveillance outlines the case of Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency did not violate Dow’s Fourth Amendment rights by using a precision aerial mapping camera to capture images of a chemical plant. The Court ruled that the camera used was a “‘commercial camera commonly used in mapmaking…’ However…‘surveillance of private property by using highly sophisticated surveillance equipment not generally available to the public, such as satellite technology, might be constitutionally proscribed absent a warrant.’”
UAVs with satellite and advanced surveillance technology therefore do seem to violate the Fourth Amendment. However, unless the FAA specifies limits on UAV surveillance, they may become ‘commonly used’ like the precise cameras in Dow Chemical Co. vs United States and a new Supreme Court hearing would be required to determine their constitutional limits.
There is no doubt that UAVs can provide revolutionary technological support to law enforcement and other industries. UAVs are cost and time efficient, and they can protect against civilian casualties. But like all new technology, UAVs can be used irresponsibly such as in warrant-less police searches, by investigative reporters, and more, leaving individuals’ privacy rights at risk. For years, UAVs have been used more frequently for surveillance in the United States, especially by border patrol agents, with little awareness or controversy among the American public. The ACLU has created a list of recommendations for monitoring UAV use including: restrictions on usage and image retention, public notification, democratic control, and tracking. However, the real determining factor behind what restrictions the FAA will place on UAVs will come from pressure by the American public.
According to Ryan Calo, Director for Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet & Society, “[UAVs] could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” Before UAVs further erode privacy rights through commonplace use and misuse, the American public in cooperation with government and the FAA must redefine privacy and ensure safeguards for responsible UAV use.
Feature photo | This photo taken March 26, 2013, shows flight test pilot Alex Gustafson carrying an InsituScanEagle unmanned aircraft in preparation for a flight in Arlington, Ore. Don Ryan | AP