A small, white quadcopter drone hovers at eye level, seemingly scanning over a line of Black Lives Matter activists in Baton Rouge. It looks like it came from Best Buy. But who’s flying it? The cops? An enterprising journalist? An activist ready to film any police misconduct?
The video was shot by Johnetta Elzie, a civil rights activist and mainstay in the Ferguson protests since the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Elzie tells Inverse that the drone in question was being operated by a civilian who claimed to be a member of the press, but that didn’t stop Twitter users and others from pushing this narrative that the drone could have been a police surveillance tool, possibly one with powerful facial recognition technology.
In that instance, those concerns were incorrect — but not unfounded. If cops across the country and the Department of Homeland Security have their way, what might seem like paranoia could soon become realized and legitimate fears. In fact, that day may already be here. Elzie says that she has witnessed large drones flying over protests in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and Baltimore. The FBI recently released some 18 hours of “spy plane” footage of the protests over the death of Freddie Gray.
“It sounded like a box fan turned on low.”
“If you didn’t know what to look for or listen to you wouldn’t see it or hear it, and it was extremely high up, but the flight pattern is what made me notice it. It went in a triangle,” said Elzie. “It sounded like a box fan turned on low.”
Elzie’s account shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country want to get their hands on drones, both small and large, for a range of missions, and the federal government wants to make sure cops know how to use these new tools.
As but one example of this trend, late last week the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center – part of the Department of Homeland Security – posted this solicitation seeking a contractor to provide five small drones and an accompanying training center to teach law enforcement officers how to operate the remote vehicles. The FLETC trains federal law enforcement officers across dozens of government agencies, and partners with local and state cops for training as well. It isn’t clear from the solicitation if the drones would be used to train local and state cops, or just federal officers. A statement of work posted on the federal contracting site FedBizOpps outlined the bid, though the specific training scenarios and potential uses of the drones were not included.
Here’s the really interesting part:
“The FLETC seeks to purchase a total of five (5) sUAS [small Unmanned Aerial System] airframes and ground control station/flight controller systems. The systems are being purchased for the purpose of evaluation in numerous use cases related to law enforcement and first responder activities.”
The drones must weigh less than 10 lbs including payload and have cameras with at least a 10x zoom capability. Additionally, the drones must have a “configurable payload, without removing the camera”. It’s not clear what payloads might be attached, but small drones can be outfitted with infrared sensors, or sensors to detect chemical or biological weapons. It’s also possible, if unlikely, that these drones could be fitted with an explosive, similar to the ground-based unmanned vehicle used to blow up a mass shooter in Dallas following a stand-off with police.
Much more likely is that the training will involve search and rescue scenarios, intelligence and reconnaissance operations, and learning how to properly survey accident sites. The cameras must “allow for live viewing” and “streaming capabilities to export video for distribution,” as well as “recording of video for later playback.” The aerial vehicles must be able to fly a “minimum 400 feet above ground level” for at least 20 minutes, or 10 minutes with a one-pound payload.
The posting was previously unnoticed in the media, and is in some ways unsurprising given recent trends in law enforcement. Federal, state, and local departments have been interested in using drones for surveillance purposes for years, though FAA regulations largely limited their wide-scale use.
But just this week, the FAA released new drone rules, which govern use by both commercial operators and public institutions, like police departments. “The new FAA rules will make it much easier for public agencies to use drones by eliminating the need for them to get a special certificate of authorization by the FAA,” Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, Technology Project, told Inverse. The new FAA rules are “basically giving blanket permission, as long as certain conditions are met.”
Although police use of surveillance drones has largely been limited, it’s not for lack of interest. “There is a lot of pent-up demand for drones for surveillance,” Stanley said. And, of course, federal law enforcement agencies don’t need drones to conduct large-scale surveillance. After the uprising in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, law enforcement used a Cessna plane equipped with cameras to film, record, and store images spanning 30 square miles for as much as ten hours a day – all of which was hidden from the public. “We saw the story in Baltimore that didn’t involve drones, but it shows the kind of surveillance appetite that’s out there,” Stanley says.
And it’s not just Baltimore police who have experimented with mass surveillance.
Documents released through FOIA requests have revealed that Black Lives Matter activists have faced repeated surveillance efforts by federal law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security monitored BLM activists both digitally on social media and at planned demonstrations.
The drones that the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center will use to train won’t be capable of large-scale, mass surveillance, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly powerful. Even small cameras can be equipped with facial recognition technology and other smartphone-like applications, like motion detection and object identification. Privacy activists have long warned that biometric data – and related surveillance measures like automatic license plate readers gathered by federal law enforcement — can often be accessed by local cops, and vice versa.
Some local lawmakers have taken preemptive steps to rein in excessive drone surveillance before it begins. A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures reveals that 18 states have passed laws requiring police to get a warrant before using a drone for surveillance. Activists at political demonstrations in public spaces, of course, wouldn’t be protected by those laws.
In general, law enforcement has the right to film people at public demonstrations — though in some states, like New York, judicial rulings restrict when and how cops can watch activists. And privacy advocates worry that the widespread use of sophisticated cameras to capture images of individual faces and possibly catalogue them could have a negative impact on the assembly rights. “When you’re in public, anybody else who’s in public has the Constitutional right to photograph you, said the ACLU’s Stanley. “That said, we don’t necessarily want our police departments photographing people exercising their first amendment protected rights.”
“There are a lot of concerns about chilling effects and intimidation that can come from police creating and retaining photographs of people in peaceful protests.”
The new FAA rules could be a tipping point that heralds a new era of remotely piloted aerial surveillance. “It’s not quite happening yet,” said Stanley. “But it’s going to turn on a dime and be upon us.”