Matthew T. Mangino: Who’s watching you?
This week the Los Angeles Police Department became the largest police department in the United States to deploy drones—small unmanned aerial systems—to “help protect officers and others by collecting crucial information during high-risk situations,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
Opponents of the use of drones for surveillance often invoke George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s 1949 classic novel, citizens have no privacy. Many of their homes are equipped with two-way “telescreens” so that they can be watched or listened to at any time. Telescreens are at work and in public places to keep track of a citizen’s every move.
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The police, in Orwell’s book, use undercover agents, who pose as normal citizens and report any suspicious thoughts or conduct. Children are encouraged to report suspicious persons to the government, and some denounce their parents. The same sort of conduct attributed to the Nazis by Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons at the onset of World War II.
Government drone deployment began more than a decade ago when it was just an emerging technology with extremely limited use. Today, drones have come into their own. Last year, more public agencies acquired drones than in all previous years combined, with at least 167 departments using drones in 2016, according to a study released this spring by Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone, reported Bloomberg.
In Los Angeles, police commissioners said they believe that their policy offers strict limitations and enough oversight. Under the rules established in Los Angeles, only SWAT officers will be permitted to fly drones during a handful of specific, high-risk situations. According to the Times, a drone can also be used during search and rescue operations, or when looking for armed suspects who have “superior firepower,” an “extraordinary tactical advantage” or are suspected of shooting at an officer.
Each flight must be approved by a high-ranking officer. Any request to fly a drone—whether approved or not—will be documented and reviewed. The Police Commission will also receive quarterly reports that will be made public, reported the Times.
Whatever one thinks of this technology, the public debate about the issue and the vote by the Los Angeles’s civilian oversight board was, according to the New York Times, refreshing—but rare. Americans deserve transparency and detailed information about the surveillance tools the police are considering—or using.
“Mission creep is of course the concern,” Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles told Bloomberg. “The history of this [LA police] department is of starting off with supposedly good intentions about the new toys that it gets … only to then get too tempted by what they can do with those toys.”
One concern with “mission creep” is facial recognition. According to the New York Times, half of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network. Drone surveillance merged with police body camera technology and facial recognition could facilitate increased surveillance and the erosion of the anonymity people assume when they go about their daily business.
For instance, the New York Police Department’s body camera policy, which was adopted after consulting with the public, does not prohibit the use of facial recognition.
The proliferation of facial recognition could stifle activity protected by the First Amendment. People may be reluctant to express their views in public if they believe their participation at rallies or protests will be identified through technology and their actions maintained in a database.
Orwellian or not, drones have a function in law enforcement and public safety—but this extraordinary tool lends itself to “mission creep” or even worse intentional misuse and abuse.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.