Along with 6 other states, California is considering mandating warrants for police surveillance by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Exceptions include “fires, hostage crises, chases, and search and rescue.”
What about crowd control? Policemen once told me that this was the number one application for which they wanted UAVs. Observing a demonstration (especially if it’s legal) hardly meets the “urgent” and “emergency” criteria that describes the above exceptions. Will police need to get a warrant for every protest?
Of course, there is an issue of whether police should be using UAVs for crowd control. I was at a festival in Utah recently, in which thousands of people gathered at a federal park in Utah. All day long we were buzzed by low-flying airplanes and helicopters. This generated rampant paranoia among festival goers, contributing to the circulation of ever more fantastic rumors. Could UAVs escalate an otherwise peaceful situation?
A forest ranger informed me that the planes were owned by local rich folks who just wanted to take a peek at our large gathering. There was no aerial police presence.
This raises another issue. Will police be more limited in UAV use than private citizens? If police need a warrant for using UAVs, could they sidestep their legal limitations by outsourcing this activity to private sources? Something like this is already going on in more conventional circumstances.
To read about the proposed California law and similar restrictions in other states, read this detailed article in CNET. If you really want an even greater in-depth look at this issue, check out the ACLU ‘s “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft.”