The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has a new crime-fighting tool at their disposal and it will forever change how police do their jobs. The NYPD has unveiled a new Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) which will assist during hostage situations and crime scene surveillance. The new program includes eleven new quad copter drones that can be deployed quickly for tactical operations. The NYPD will also possess two larger, weather-resistant drones equipped with 3D mapping and 30X zoom cameras with thermal imaging capabilities.
The large surveillance drones are intended to help out with search and rescue missions, but their capabilities could easily be abused to spy on suspicious targets and commit ‘color of law’ abuses. Right now the NYPD says the tactical drones will not be equipped with weapons and will not conduct “routine patrols.” This does not mean that the drones won’t be used to patrol, monitor, and record when the NYPD deems that the safety of the public is “at risk.”
In what ways will the NYPD push the boundaries of tactical and surveillance drones?
According to the police commissioner, the drones will be used responsibly for incidents such as hazardous materials accidents. The drones will also be used to survey inaccessible crime scenes. As the NYPD gets comfortable with the technology, in what ways will they push the boundaries? If officers were desperate to locate a specific person, they could use facial recognition technology on the drones to scan citizens on the streets. This level of police power will inevitably enforce greater citizen compliance to laws and regulations, and desensitize them to abuse. The New York Civil Liberties Union is speaking out about the NYPD’s new drone policy, which doesn’t do enough to safeguard against potential privacy violations. They also question whether the new drone fleet provides for “sufficient law enforcement needs.”
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the new drone fleet will make situations safer for everyone. “As the largest municipal police department in the United States, the NYPD must always be willing to leverage the benefits of new and always-improving technology,” O’Neill said. “Our new UAS program is part of this evolution – it enables our highly-trained cops to be even more responsive to the people we serve, and to carry out the NYPD’s critical work in ways that are more effective, efficient, and safe for everyone.”
Just because a group in power believes they can make the public more safe, does not mean that liberties won’t be lost in the process and abuses won’t occur?
The NYPD joins more than 900 emergency response teams and state and local police forces around the country that have drones at their disposal. New York City is a very different landscape for drones; the Legal Aid Society warns that the NYPD’s drone program is a dangerous step toward the further militarization of the NYPD. The Legal Aid Society argues that the drone fleet will add to the NYPD’s “unregulated arsenal of surveillance tools.”
With no accountability put in place, these drone fleets could be equipped with hundreds of surveillance cameras and mapping services to scan citizens and learn about their behavior. Over time this tracking capability could be used to single out people on the streets and illegally profile them. Corrupt officers could theoretically use the drones to stalk people, corner them, fabricate evidence, force confessions, among other color of law abuses often reported to the FBI. With advances in facial recognition technology, these drones could be used in the future to know the whereabouts and behaviors of virtually all citizens on New York City streets.