Rockler: Domestic police departments’ drone usage should be limited

Many Americans are aware the United States employs drones in the Middle East, but now, there’s a chance drones could be used by police domestically for surveillance. Despite the few benefits drones could have, the potential to invade privacy should keep them barred from domestic use.

Drones are unmanned aircraft that are typically small and disguised. They are equipped with cameras so pilots can remotely fly them. They can also be armed, though it is unlikely they will have weapons when used domestically.

During the last several years in the war on terror, the Obama administration has preferred the use of drones because they do not put American lives at risk. It’s also easier to justify killing American citizens abroad labeled as terrorists, because court rulings deem it acceptable.

States across the country are considering using this technology for surveillance. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security started the $4-million Air-based Technologies Program, which provides grants to local police departments to purchase drones.

In Florida, Orange County recently spent $50,000 to purchase the aircraft. State Sen. Joe Negron has proposed legislation that restricts what drones can be used for and when they can be flown.

“Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn’t be hovering in the sky, monitoring Floridians,” he told the Florida Public Radio Network. “That’s not something that we believe is an appropriate role for government.”

New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly said the NYPD might have interest in the technology.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told CBS New York, “Drones aren’t that exotic anymore. Brookstone sells them. We’ve looked at them but haven’t tested or deployed any.” Though this technology is sold in stores for private consumers, there has yet to be any determination of in what instances police can use them.

Professional drones are also far more advanced – capable of more than capturing what is seen on video. Some are able to deliver infrared images to detect heat sources.

Recent technological advances have challenged an individual’s privacy. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled police cannot put a tracking system on suspects’ cars without first obtaining a warrant. Prior to the ruling, police in some states could track any individual’s car for whatever reason.

Just like tracking, drones are a topic that will need further rulings from the court. There is a high likelihood their use could compromise privacy at the cost of increased security. The case of tracking is one where police overstretched their power because there were few rules about who could be tracked. There is potential for the same abuse of power in the case of drones.

There are some advantages that drones could have. Negron’s bill allows drone usage for the vague category of “national security,” in cases of child abductions and when a judge issues a search warrant. These are all instances where there is a specific instance and scope to surveillance. However, as the law is now, drones could be used without a specific purpose. This should concern the public.

As of now there are too many unknowns and very few rules defined. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2011 “routine aerial surveillance in American life would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”

While the prospect of this routine surveillance may seem remote, steps should be taken to ensure their use is limited.

Harmen Rockler is a senior newspaper and online journalism and political science major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at or followed on Twitter at @LeftofBoston.


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