The police killings of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray led to massive uprisings of black and simply fed-up Americans in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities around the United States. Militarized police forces met protesters in the streets with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other riot control weaponry designed to disperse crowds. For many white Americans, it was the first time they realized local cops could look like an invading army. For protesters who spent time in the streets with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t much of a surprise.
In coming years, it’s possible those activists will be facing down riot control drones.
Even now, drone and weapons manufacturers around the world are fitting their aerial and ground-based unmanned vehicles with less-lethal firepower that’s more suitable for riot control, according to a new report written by arms-control researcher Michael Crowley. Popular Mechanics recently highlighted six unmanned aerial vehicles capable of unleashing tear gas from above.
At the same time, police departments in several U.S. cities have used new surveillance technologies in controversial ways, contrary to their stated purposes. Powerful devices like automatic license-plate readers and cell phone data-grabbers suck in far more information than law enforcement often lets on. Further complicating the issue is that cops use these new devices and software with almost no oversight, and the oversight that does exist often comes years after the fact.
“Local law enforcement agencies across the country have access now to an unprecedented array of powerful surveillance tools that used to be just accessible to intelligence agencies, the military, and maybe the FBI,” ACLU staff attorney Nathan Wessler tells Inverse. “State and local law enforcement is able to get access to these devices in near-complete secrecy and use them secretly for years without appropriate oversight because the public, and the courts, and the legislatures are none-the-wiser. When finally the public learns what’s going on, and there starts to be laws and court decisions controlling the technology, it’s already too late.”
Wessler doesn’t work specifically on cops’ use of armed drones, but he says the ACLU “has very strong concerns, and opposes incorporating those kinds of [offensive] technologies onto flying robots.”
Globally, tear-gas-equipped drones are likely to find buyers among repressive police forces and regimes. A separate recent report predicts that authoritarian governments will probably use drones in the coming decade to quash internal dissent.
The FAA has yet to issue rules that will govern how U.S. law enforcement will be able to use drones. Only about 50 police departments have surveillance drones, according to a recent Congressional report, though that number will likely skyrocket once the FAA issues its guidelines.
There’s clearly an appetite among police departments for riot-control robots. North Dakota made headlines in 2015, when the state passed a law permitting cops to outfit drones with bean bag guns. A deputy sheriff in Texas also floated the idea of arming his department’s drones with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The prospect of a surge in riot control drones in the U.S. is particularly alarming — not merely in light of the large number of people killed by the police every year, but because recent stories suggest departments often abuse new tech.
In Anaheim, for instance, local police “have spent almost a decade secretly building an inventory of powerful cell phone surveillance devices and making them available to neighboring cities in Orange County,” writes ACLU staff attorney Matt Cagle. Since at least 2009, the Anaheim police had access to several different forms of cell phone surveillance tools. One, known as a Stingray, works by spoofing a cell phone tower and collecting a cell phone’s specific ID and location.
Overall, the ACLU has tallied 59 departments in 23 states that have their own Stingray device, which is often bought with federal funds. But as was the case in Anaheim, cops often lend their Stingrays to neighboring municipalities, so the full scale of their use is still unknown.
The Anaheim cops, the ACLU learned, also have a tool called a Dirtbox, a military-grade surveillance tool — that can be mounted on a plane — capable of sucking up data from thousands of phones simultaneously. Some Dirtbox devices reportedly include the ability to record voice calls. “If an earlier model is capable of eavesdropping on conversations and scooping up emails and text messages, can Anaheim’s later-generation model do the same?” Cagle asks in his report. Prior to the ACLU’s revelation, only the federal government and the cities of L.A. and Chicago were known to use Dirtbox technology.
Although the harm done to civilians by Stingrays can seem abstract, another invasive form of spying is already changing the way some cities raise revenue. BuzzFeed recently published a deep report on the police department in Port Arthur, Texas, that turned automatic license-plate readers into a traffic ticketing factory. The department outfitted its SUV with ALPRs, and started getting 40 or 50 hits a day on unpaid tickets. Then the department expanded to include people who had outstanding warrants for other infractions, beyond traffic violations. City revenue almost doubled from 2008 to 2011, according to BuzzFeed, from $1.2 million to $2.1 million.
“License plate recognition software is often touted as a way to catch terrorists, dangerous fugitives on the run, and stolen cars,” BuzzFeed’s Alex Campbell and Kendall Taggart wrote. “But Port Arthur and many other departments around the country use it for a less extreme — but more lucrative — purpose: to pull over people who owe debts to the city municipal court, demanding, in many cases, that they either pay up or go to jail.” The result is that poor people — and a disproportionate number of black Port Arthur residents — wind up behind bars.
The article also notes that 70 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have at least one ALPR. More are on the way.
It’s important not to overstate the immediate threat that riot control drones pose to Americans. But equally clear is that without strong oversight, the long-term potential for abuse among surveillance tools and weaponized robots is unnerving, especially given law enforcement’s record.
“It’s a concerning cycle, when public oversight and knowledge lags far behind what police are actually doing,” says Wessler. So it feels like civil society is constantly playing catch up, I asked. “Exactly.”