ACLU finds domestic drones the Worst. Thing. Evah.

posted at 11:31 am on March 16, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

One of the stable of writers at Huffpo is getting the Left all up in arms over the latest complaint from the ACLU. This week, the new topic of outrage is drones, but not the ones flying over Afghanistan. (At least not today.) They’re more concerned with the idea of domestic law enforcement using the new technology to fight crime. Because they’re way worse than helicopters or something.

As drone regulation legislation works its way through Congress and the 30 (so far) state legislatures where it has been introduced, one question that we hear a lot these days is, “we’ve had police helicopters for a long time, what’s so different about drones?”

For one thing, police helicopters do raise privacy issues. Because of the expense of using manned police aircraft, privacy invasions have not risen to the level that legislators have felt compelled to address them, but incidents do happen. In 2005, for example, a police helicopter supposedly monitoring a street protest in New York City instead trained its infrared camera for a prolonged period on a couple making love on a pitch-black rooftop patio. Any police helicopter that followed a citizen around town for no reason, or hovered over the backyard of innocent homeowners whose daughter was sunbathing with her friends, would probably draw complaints. With drones, scenarios like those are bound to happen much more frequently. And that’s because there are some critical distinctions between manned and unmanned aircraft.

Before we even get to the “differences” cited in the article, it should be pointed out that the above paragraph is total hogwash in terms of expressing concerns regarding government overreach via technology. The examples cited are not cases of the police using helicopters to further an investigation by short circuiting any citizen’s rights. They’re examples of rogue officers breaking the law themselves. It’s certainly bad, but this is not a matter of public policy. It’s a case of a few bad apple law enforcement officials going off the reservation. (Yes, I’m still using that phrase. No, it’s not racist. Deal with it.)

Now, as to the “reasons” why drones are worse than helicopters.

1. Drones erase “natural limits” on aerial surveillance

Manned helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are expensive to acquire, staff, and maintain. A police helicopter costs from $500,000 to $3 million to acquire, and $200-$400 an hour to fly…

With drones, on the other hand, it’s easy to foresee a day when even a professional police drone could be acquired for less than a hundred dollars, including maintenance costs.

How is this even germane to a discussion of privacy rights and limits on law enforcement? Because helicopters cost too much? Technology tends to get smaller and cheaper over time. That’s just a given. Either the police have the right to view activities from the air or they don’t. And it’s been long established that your reasonable expectation of privacy is vastly diminished once you step outside your door and go out in public where you can be seen by anyone, including the cops.

2. Drones make new forms of privacy invasion possible

In addition, there are some kinds of privacy invasion that are only possible with drones. For example, micro-drones maneuvering into intrusive places; even the smallest manned helicopter can’t fly into a garage or hover unseen outside a third-story bedroom window. Or (as I’ve written about before), the fact that drones can be silent; the loud noise a helicopter makes serves as a crude kind of “notice” that one may be under surveillance from the air. Silent or high-flying drones that can’t be heard provide no such notice.

There are two parts to this one. Is it legal for the police to use a drone to hover outside your window and peer inside? We’ll need to ask some of the lawyers int he crowd about that one. Can they use high power telescopes to look in your windows from afar? Could they do it from a helicopter with binoculars? That seems less a question about technology than the limits of investigations absent a warrant. As to the noise factor, more hogwash. The noise of a chopper is not built-in as some sort of required warning that you’re being watched. It’s the byproduct of having a huge engine. If they could build a total silent Blackhawk, trust me… they would.

3. Drones’ capabilities are likely to expand even further in the future

The fact that drones are so inexpensive will have another consequence: because so many drones will be out there, and so many people innovating with them, it’s very likely that the technology will develop new capabilities that have never existed for police helicopters.

Bah. The same as with the first “argument” above, this is the growth of technology, not of the surveillance state. It’s bound to happen no matter who is using it.

Should we be banning police from using drones if they can afford them? Seems to me it might have been nice to have a fleet of them around when they were chasing Christopher Dorner a little while back. We might have had a few less people in body bags if we’d had them. In the end, the technology isn’t what should be your concern, it’s the laws behind them. Make sure that the government respects the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens and let them have the tools they need to catch the actual bad guys.


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For anyone who wanders back around to this thread, the drones used by government can not be blinded by a laser pointer.

PolAgnostic on March 16, 2013 at 10:50 PM

Many police helicopters now mount laser detectors/geolocators which operate in real time. It’s a Federal felony offense to shine a laser of any wavelength at an aircraft.

http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/01/28/4581100/dallas-man-arrested-for-shooting.html

http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Man-Denied-Bond-in-Laser-Pointing-Case-189286681.html

unclesmrgol on March 16, 2013 at 11:27 PM

unclesmrgol on March 16, 2013 at 11:27 PM

And the reason they take this so seriously is because you could make a plane/’copter crash into God-knows-what if you blind the pilot. Cracked down on even harder after 9/11 and the were not soft on it before!

MelonCollie on March 16, 2013 at 11:39 PM

Let me expand on this old soldier’s excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog that intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.

Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn’t tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, “Baa.” Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.

The ACLU are sheep. They view the sheepdog as the wolf. We have sheepdogs who are indeed wolves, but they are few, and have a tendency to out themselves — as did the NYPD guys who focussed their brand new IR camera on a couple making love. Who outed them? Their fellow sheepdogs.

Now, when New Yorkers were stranded on rooftops as a result of Hurricane Sandy, those IR camera equipped helicopters came and rescued them. Drones would have make locating those who needed rescuing even easier.

As drones get smaller and smaller, the ability for those operating the drones to spy on you will get better and better. Yes, the conversation needs to happen. Who wants an insect sized drone sitting outside their window listening to everything they say?

unclesmrgol on March 17, 2013 at 2:06 AM

NO DRONES OVER AMERICA.

Enough of this Total Surveillance Society crap.

profitsbeard on March 17, 2013 at 3:52 AM

Agree with profitsbeard. Down with traffic cameras, drones, and all the other appurtenances of a surveillance state. Up with freedom!

I also disagree with the sheep/sheepdogs/wolves analogy. And I’ll do so by pointing you back to the federalist papers. It is the nature of humans to gather power and be corrupted by it. Historically, governments are a greater threat to the liberties of their citizens than any foreign invader or domestic terrorist is. That’s why the safeguards such as the bill of rights and the tenth amendment were built into the constitution. We’re supposed to all be citizens embracing our responsibility and working TOGETHER to protect our lives and our liberties. Not defanged caged animals protected by a military aristocracy. That didn’t work so well in the middle ages and I see no reason to repeat the experiment.

Respectfully,

Brian P.

pendell2 on March 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Priorities:

If drones are really only $100, isn’t the bigger problem the peeping tom down the street?

taznar on March 17, 2013 at 2:04 PM

Follow the money.

I think most of those in the media and punditry who advocate and defend drone use domestically have either themselves been paid, or work for a media outlet that has taken money from drone manufacturers to advocate their use.

sartana on March 17, 2013 at 3:53 PM

I was reminded of parts of John Carpenter’s They Live – the hovering, police observation pods – EVERYWHERE.

OhEssYouCowboys on March 16, 2013 at 12:20 PM

I love that movie, even with the cheesy dialogue and way-too-long fight scene.

But, back to this thread; I never thought I would agree with the ACLU over Jazz, but on this I do. There is waaayyy too much chance for abuse with these things. And, it is just another “big brother” tool that they will implement, whether we like it or not, that will desensitize people to more and more privacy violations, making it seem normal. I mean, does anyone even notice surveillance cameras anymore?!

Sterling Holobyte on March 17, 2013 at 5:35 PM

Fascinating question! One of the interesting things about our legal system is always the dichotomy between technology and what constitutes any invasion of privacy. I remember one Supreme Court case where the police used thermal imagers to take pictures of all the houses on a particular street, including the house of the guy they suspected of having a marijuana hydroponics lab. Sure enough, all those sun lamps registered big time. Supreme Court said okay. But I also remember a case where the LAPD got their hands on a laser microphone. You train it on a window and the laser reads the vibrations of sound off the glass. Supreme Court nixed that one. So we’ll have to see about drones. I would suspect that the Supreme Court will maintain the standard that anything that could be seen by the public, or a person (including one in an airplane or helicopter) is technically legal for police action. I think the pros for law enforcement drone use far outweigh the cons, so with just some decent guidelines from the court it could be a great tool. Imagine some drone hovering over the streets of downtown, the camera taking a shot of every pedestrian’s face. The shots are filtered through facial recognition software and pings on a warrant for a man wanted for armed robbery. The drone stays in visual contact with the man as regular manned units are vectored in. Bad guy goes to jail. Sweet.

eyesights on March 17, 2013 at 8:15 PM

I think the pros for law enforcement drone use far outweigh the cons, so with just some decent guidelines from the court it could be a great tool. Imagine some drone hovering over the streets of downtown, the camera taking a shot of every pedestrian’s face. The shots are filtered through facial recognition software and pings on a warrant for a man wanted for armed robbery. The drone stays in visual contact with the man as regular manned units are vectored in. Bad guy goes to jail. Sweet.

eyesights on March 17, 2013 at 8:15 PM


You forgot the sarcasm tag.

Imagine, alternately, some near future political use of this “tool” for sorting out those with undesrable opinions by constantly tracking them until they commit any one of a thousand “crimes” (littering, jaywalking, apparently sexually harassing a child on the street, etc., etc. etc.) that can then be prosecuted to destroy their character and render them neutralized politically.

Total Surveillance means every tiny infraction can be monitored and stored and then built into a case against anyone singled out by the Total Surveillance State’s “controllers”.

NO DRONES OVER AMERICA!

profitsbeard on March 17, 2013 at 11:42 PM

I think the pros for law enforcement drone use far outweigh the cons, so with just some decent guidelines

Dude, what are you thinking? You mean decent guidelines like the laws against attempted murder that aren’t being enforced in LA against the people who blazed away with handguns at the newspaper delivery old ladies? Sure, we’ll just say, “Now, you guys. Don’t you be aiming those cameras at that actress’ house. Don’t you be flying by that woman’s house on Elm Street who likes to sunbathe nude in the privacy of her backyard. Don’t you be doing that now.” Seriously, what are you thinking here? It’s actually frightening to think there are people like you out there.

“You better follow those guidelines, guys.”

rdbrewer on March 18, 2013 at 1:15 AM

Make sure that the government respects the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens and let them have the tools they need to catch the actual bad guys.

Well…as with stop light cameras, when used appropriately, drones are perfectly legal. Similarly, I am perfectly free to vote and campaign against any political entity with the temerity to deploy such ‘Big Brother’ tactics against its own constituency. Right doesn’t make right – not in a democracy.

Knott Buyinit on March 18, 2013 at 10:24 AM

I think the ACLU is correct here. Helicopters have the capability to invade our privacy, but they’re expensive to operate and require flight clearance.

Drones, on the other hand, can invade our privacy cheaply and off-the-books. It’s basically a surveilance multiplier. And even though I’m not doing anything illegal, don’t I have a right to live my life without being spied on by the government? The Founders fought to keep soldiers from being stationed in their homes. Do you think they’d have been ok with having police peeking (or staring constantly) into their windows?

Peeping toms are also an issue – and imagine how intrusive paparazzi can get once they start using drones to spy on the private lives of celebrities.

hawksruleva on March 18, 2013 at 10:24 AM

I would suspect that the Supreme Court will maintain the standard that anything that could be seen by the public, or a person (including one in an airplane or helicopter) is technically legal for police action.

eyesights on March 17, 2013 at 8:15 PM

But a drone can get to places that airplanes or helicopters can’t get. Like beneath the tree-line of a wooded back yard. Or hovering a few feet away from a house with a camera to see more of a room that a helicopter would be a hundred yards away from.

Does the court deem it acceptable for police to erect scaffolding to observe a suspect? Wouldn’t they require a warrant for that?

hawksruleva on March 18, 2013 at 10:29 AM

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
- Benjamin Franklin

Deep Thought on March 18, 2013 at 10:31 AM

I would argue that police can do everything the same as citizens can without a warrant. So the real question is… “Can civilians use drones?”

If not, then the police SHOULD NOT be able to use without a warrant.

If so, then the police SHOULD be able to use without a warrant.

So… can civilians use drones? I’d say right now… no.

dominigan on March 18, 2013 at 11:14 AM

I’d also use an example of my comment…

Would police mind if I hovered a drone over their police property and monitored the comings and goings of cops and vehicles (even those undercover)? Would they mind if I got photos of all license plates of vehicles that came and went on their property? Would they mind if I hovered a drone and got photo ids of all their officers?

Why not?

After all, if they’re not doing anything illegal or tyrannical, what do they have to fear, right?

/sarc

For some reason, I think they’d be just as upset as most of us… but still try to use the argument that they require special circumstances, and thus, are above the law…

dominigan on March 18, 2013 at 11:20 AM

In the end, the technology isn’t what should be your concern, it’s the laws behind them.

You’ve noted of course the disregard of laws over the last ~5 years, yes? Things like Fast & Furious are only what we know about. Laws mean nothing if those in charge of enforcing them, bend them to their purposes.

roy_batty on March 18, 2013 at 11:21 AM

So… can civilians use drones? I’d say right now… no.

dominigan on March 18, 2013 at 11:14 AM

BZZZZZZT! And you would be wrong.

As it stands right now, Civilian BUSINESSES cannot use drones without prior FAA approval and licensing. IE: You can’t use a drone to make money without your official Gub’mint approved card.

Private citizens who wish to fly “drones” AKA: RC toys with cameras on them, as a hobby are absolutely allowed to do so.

How do I know this? Because I am one of those civilians and I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading about the pertinent regulations and laws.

Just as an aside let me say that I absolutely LOATHE the term “drone” being bandied about when people talk about what I do. I’m not a soldier, I’m not flying a reaper or a predator. I don’t fly a DRONE (IE: semi-autonomous flying weapons platform)

I fly a STYROFOAM TOY PLANE that I mounted a cheapie NTSC camera on with a video transmitter. I then stand in a field looking like a dork while I pilot my toy plane around the sky as though I were Stuart Little. It’s good clean geeky fun, and my son loves to “ride along” with a second pair of goggles. it’s the closest you can get to being a bird without leaving the ground.

Now, there are other kinds of RC craft that you can strap a camera to. The picture here shows a “Parrot AR Drone” which is a toy you can buy and pilot with your iPhone. It has a maximum flight time of about 10 minutes and a range of a coupole hundred yards “line of sight”. IE: you have to be able to see the thing. If it goes behind somethng like a wall or a tree you lose control.

The same thing goes for the fancier and more professional “Multi-coptors” that you see out there. Some are very big, but all that weight comes at a price. The longest flight time for the best ones out there is measured in MINUTES, not hours. They ALL have the same “LOS” operational restrictions that the cheapie Parrot drone has. They literally CANNOT do some of the things people are saying they could do. It’s not technology restricting this, it’s PHYSICS. Control frequencies are what they are, and no amount of fancy technology is going to change the propagation rates and waveforms of those radio frequencies.

This is what drives me crazy about this debate. Nothing but utter ignorance out there. People think that the Hollywood fantasies of little micro-drones flying forever through all sorts impossible environments while being controlled from afar with magical fairy technology are REAL. The truth is, they just aren’t. There are real, physical limitations to what a 2 pound plane or multi-copter can do that are totally outside the effects of the technology used to build them. These physical limitations make most (if not all) of the “horror” scenarios described even in this thread literally IMPOSSIBLE.

The worst part of it is that ignorant, irrational fear is driving LAWMAKING in the country, and ordinary law-abiding people like me are being put at legal risk because some ignorant boobs are afraid that evil magical hunter-kiler drones are out to take nudie pictures of thier overweight ugly wives as they scare the neighbor’s kids by sunbathing in the back yard.

Here’s the end-all, be-all of this argument: If it is illegal to do with a camera in your hands or on the end of a long pole, then it is illegal to do with a camera on an RC aircraft. Already. With no additional laws written. Period. All this hyperventilating about the “Police State” and the “Surveillance Society” are just that. Hyperventilating. Some of you need to calm down and get a grip before wholesome and healthy hobbies get legislated out of existence.

wearyman on March 18, 2013 at 12:34 PM

Depending on the design of the drone, many drones can stay “on station” for very long periods, which a police helicopter could never do. They can’t even remain stationary very long without creating “wash” problems. Smaller drones rarely have this problem.

J_Crater on March 16, 2013 at 11:38 AM

No, they cannot. A Multicopter drone smaller than a helicopter cannot carry enough battery capacity or liquid fuel to remain aloft for very long AT ALL. (about 30 minutes, max) Fixed wing craft can fly for longer, but that requires a gasoline engine OR a glider setup, neither of which are good for hovering in one spot OR being close enough to a target to see anything.

wearyman on March 18, 2013 at 12:37 PM

I reserve the right to down any fly craft over my property that I can reach with a bow and arrow.

J_Crater on March 16, 2013 at 11:40 AM

No, you may not. According to legal precedent set down shortly after the Wright Brothers kicked off aviation, the government owns the airspace above your land, starting at about 30 feet off the ground. Shooting at aircraft of any kind (UAVs included) is a felony. Of course, using your bow and arrow you are far more likely to miss the aircraft, and then your arrow will fall in a ballistic trajectory down elswhere in your neighborhood.

When the police show up to arrest you for killing your neighbor’s kid with the falling arrow while she was in the kiddy pool in their backyard, be sure to use that “But a drone was over mah propuhtee” excuse. I’m sure that will go over REAL WELL.

wearyman on March 18, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Wearyman, we are not talking about recreational users buzzing around with their RC hobby aircraft in a field. I don’t think anyone cares about you flying that thing around, knowing that if you do buzz next to someone’s property to spy on them, you would be subject to the laws that guard a person’s privacy.
What we are concerned about is the government’s ability to only adhere to laws that they want to, especially with this administration, and the abuses that can, and do, occur when you give those in power more authority than they should have with regards to our private property and private lives.

They literally CANNOT do some of the things people are saying they could do.
wearyman on March 18, 2013 at 12:34 PM

People, learned people, have thought the same thing about aircraft in general in the past, yet look how far we have come.
“Physically” speaking, a bumblebee is not even supposed to be able to fly. How long do you think it will be before they do have domestic UAV’s with the ability to stay in the air for longer than 30 minutes? Not that 30 minutes isn’t a long enough time to spy on some “domestic terrorist”(as classified by our lovely Janet Napalitano.).

There is room for abuse once this thing gets started. If you want to stick your head in the sand just because you are afraid you will lose your hobby pursuit, which is nonsense, you go right ahead.

Sterling Holobyte on March 18, 2013 at 6:18 PM

Wearyman, we are not talking about recreational users buzzing around with their RC hobby aircraft in a field. I don’t think anyone cares about you flying that thing around, knowing that if you do buzz next to someone’s property to spy on them, you would be subject to the laws that guard a person’s privacy.
What we are concerned about is the government’s ability to only adhere to laws that they want to, especially with this administration, and the abuses that can, and do, occur when you give those in power more authority than they should have with regards to our private property and private lives.

I understand and respect this opinion in regards to government interference. As a conservative I share it. The problem is that our politicians are just knee-jerk reacting to it and what has happenned is that absurdly broad laws are being crafted and passed that restrict PRIVATE use of these craft, all the way down to the Hobby level (See Oregon Senate bill 71, for a single example.) So far at least 15 states (See THIS MAP for more info) have written “Anti-drone” laws, Almost all of which EXEMPT the police while cracking down on Hobbyists.

Anti-drone FUD is being used to eliminate the Hobbyist FPV flyer and private drone builders from the field while protecting the vested interests, including the government.

People, learned people, have thought the same thing about aircraft in general in the past, yet look how far we have come.
“Physically” speaking, a bumblebee is not even supposed to be able to fly. How long do you think it will be before they do have domestic UAV’s with the ability to stay in the air for longer than 30 minutes? Not that 30 minutes isn’t a long enough time to spy on some “domestic terrorist”(as classified by our lovely Janet Napalitano.).

You didn’t read my post carefully. It’s not just the flying capability of the machines, which I agree, will get better with time. It’s the physical limitations of the control systems. Some of these are bounded by the physical laws of the Universe, such as RF propagation and penetration rates. No amount of technology will change those, they are as immutable as “The Speed of Light”.

You simply cannot get a small UAV craft to do some of the things that people are afraid they will do and maintain control of them. Not to mention beaming back images from places that would prevent the RF from getting back.

It’s actually startlingly easy to prevent a radio-controlled drone aircraft from approaching or maintaining flight in a given area. Simply saturate the region with moderately powered “static” on multiple frequencies and the darn thing will drop out of the sky like a stone. You could build a jammer like this for less than $1000 and run it off a car battery for days. This wouldn’t affect a Predator at 10,000 feet, but then , at that height they aren’t going to be looking in your window either.

Oh, and just so you know, that “Bumblebee can’t fly” thing? It’s bunkum.

There is room for abuse once this thing gets started. If you want to stick your head in the sand just because you are afraid you will lose your hobby pursuit, which is nonsense, you go right ahead.

Is there room for abuse? Of course. Is it to the level that many are saying? No, absolutely not.

My point is that if we allow ourselves to get worked up about “drones” in specific because it’s the “10 minutes hate” du-jour, then we risk allowing big government types MORE power, not less.

Also, as you can see, it is FAR from “nonsense” that some legislators will seek to ban ALL forms of “flying craft with cameras” if given the chance. It’s already happenning.

wearyman on March 19, 2013 at 12:35 PM

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