“Land” and Frisk? Privacy Concerns Abound as NYPD Looks Into Possibility of Drones Patrolling New York Skies


Get excited New Yorkers! Our city is inching one step closer to resembling one of those nightmarish societies depicted in your favorite 20th century dystopian novel with the impending introduction of police surveillance drones into our air space.

No, they’re not just for the war in Afghanistan. Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, are already being used in certain places around the U.S. including areas along the U.S/Mexico border. And, the NYPD apparently wants in on the action.

The American Civil Liberties Union discovered an email sent by the NYPD in December 2010 to the Federal Aviation Administration, in which the department inquires about the possibility of bringing drones to New York City.

Realizing the serious threat that drones present to the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of New Yorkers and Americans across the country, the ACLU filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests with five federal agencies Tuesday demanding more information about domestic drones. And, representatives from the organization attended a congressional hearing in Houston yesterday to testify about the potential pitfalls of such technology.

“The NYPD is in the basic stages of investigating the possibility of using drones here in New York, but the fact is we know very little,” Udi Ofer, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, tells the Voice. “That is particularly concerning since, unfortunately, the NYPD has a long and infamous history of engaging in unchecked surveillance of lawful activity.”

Aerial surveillance by manned-aircrafts has long been a part of police enforcement in the U.S. and New York City, but the high costs of such aerial operations has limited the pervasiveness of the practice. But, unmanned drone surveillance technology is becoming increasingly more sophisticated and cheaper to produce. Consequently, industry corporations are chomping at the bit to expand their market and police departments across the U.S. are eager customers.

Considering that the NYPD has trouble honoring the rights of New Yorkers on land, it’s pretty scary to imagine what new ways they’ll find to harass people from the air. Ofer cited the recent case –where the NYPD coerced a Muslim man to spy on members of his religious community even though they weren’t previously suspected of engaging in illegal activity — as an example abusive surveillance tactics that the NYPD already employs.

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A December 2011 ACLU report on domestic drones describes how rapidly drone technology is advancing. Many drones possess high-powered zoom-lenses and night vision. The report also indicates that drones are on the verge of acquiring see-through capabilities that will allow them to look through walls and other objects. Advances in artificial intelligence technology, will soon enable drones to carry out spy missions, operate without command, and track and evade specific targets.

Drones used in New York City will likely be small fixed-winged aircrafts as opposed to the large fixed-wing aircrafts used in Afghanistan, and to patrol the U.S./Mexico border. The Houston police department is currently testing these 4 feet long, 10 feet wide small fixed-winged drones.

“Drone surveillance is an incredibly powerful technology that does not have any meaningful regulations,” Ofer says. “This is a prime example of where the law hasn’t caught up to technology. The current privacy regulations in place to protect New Yorkers against government abuses of power were put in place when this type of technology was not available. And, what we need here is a privacy act for the 21 century that protects New Yorkers and Americans across the country from unchecked surveillance.”

Controversy over invasive aerial surveillance arose in New York in 2004 when a police helicopter captured four-minute footage of a couple having sex on their roof-top balcony. NYPD officials responded to concerns about the footage by saying “this is what police in helicopters are supposed to do, check out people to make sure no one is … doing anything illegal,” according to the report.

“Without meaningful regulation, they’re going to be used in a pervasive way, and the police will engage in fishing expeditions and it will lead to police abuses,” Ofer says.

The New York National Guard is already using drones near the Adirondacks, where some vehicles that pass through the area are being used to test surveillance capabilities. Ofer says that the prospect of drones in the city appears increasingly more likely, and the public must understand how privacy rights will suffer with the proliferation of this technology without comprehensive regulations in place.

“We need to learn more. We also need the public to start asking questions of Commissioner Kelly [and] Mayor Bloomberg for just basic information,” Ofer says. “It shouldn’t be controversial for the NYPD to let the people of New York know what it’s doing with the drone technology. And, once New Yorkers have a full understanding of what the NYPD is doing, and what the NYPD plans to do, then we need to have a serious conversation.”