What's wrong with police drones?

DJI’s Matrice 200 drone. Photo: DJI via Slate

Recently the online journal Slate carried the news that DJI, the world's largest maker of consumer drones, is teaming with Axon, which sells more body cameras to police in the U. S. than anyone else.  Their joint venture, called Axon Air, plans to sell drones to law-enforcement agencies and couple them to Axon's cloud-based database called Evidence.com, which maintains files of video and other information gathered by police departments across the country.  Privacy experts interviewed about this development expressed concerns that when drone-generated video of crowds is processed by artificial-intelligence face-recognition software, the privacy of even law-abiding citizens will be further compromised. 

Is this new development a real threat to privacy, or is it just one more step down a path we've been treading for so long that in the long run it won't make any difference?  To answer that question, we need to have a good idea of what privacy means in the context of the type of surveillance that drones can do.

The Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution asserts "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . . "  The key word is "unreasonable," and due to reasons both jurisprudential and technological, the meaning of that word has changed over time.  What it has meant historically is that before searching a person's private home, officers of the law must obtain a search warrant from a judge after explaining the reasons why they think such a search may turn up something illegal. 

But drones don't frisk people—they can't generally see anything that anybody at the same location of the drone couldn't see.  So as a result, there are few restrictions if any against simply taking pictures of people who are out in public places such as streets, sidewalks, parks, and other venues that drones can easily access.  As a result, security cameras operated both by law enforcement personnel and by private entities have proliferated to the extent that in many parts of the U. S., you can't walk down the street without leaving evidence that you did so in a dozen or so different places. 

This capability has proved its value in situations such as terrorist bombings, where inspection of videos after a tragedy has provided valuable evidence.  But the price we have paid is a sacrifice of privacy so that the rare malefactor can be caught on camera.

So far, this sacrifice seems to be worthwhile.  I'm not aware of a lot of cases in which someone who wasn't breaking the law or looked like they were, has been persecuted or had their privacy violated by the misuse of privately-owned security cameras.  There may be the odd case here and there, but generally speaking, such data is accessed only when a crime has occurred, and those responsible for reviewing camera data have done a good job of concentrating on genuine suspects and not misusing what they find.

Is there any reason that the same situation won't obtain if police forces begin using drone-captured video, and integrating it into Evidence.com, the Axon cloud-based evidence database?  Again, it all depends on the motives of those who can access the data.

If law enforcement agencies don't abuse such access and use it only for genuine criminal investigations, then it doesn't seem like moving security cameras to drones is going to make much difference to the average law-abiding citizen.  If anything, a drone is a lot more visible than a security camera stuck inside a light fixture somewhere, so people will be more aware that they're being watched than otherwise. 

But my concern is not so much for misuse in the U. S. as it is for misuse in countries which do not have the protection of the Bill of Rights, such as China, the home country of the drone-maker DJI. 

The Chinese government has announced plans to develop something called a Social Credit System, and has already put elements of it in place.  According to Wikipedia, the plans are for every citizen and business to have some sort of ranking rather like a credit score in the U. S.  Only the types of behavior considered for the ranking range far beyond whether you simply pay your bills on time, and include how much you play Internet games, how you shop, and other legal activities.  Already the Social Credit System has been used to ban certain people from taking domestic airline flights, attending certain schools, and getting certain kinds of jobs. 

While I have no evidence to support this, one can easily imagine a drone monitoring a Chinese citizen who goes to church, for example, and sending his or her social credit score into the basement as a result.  So whether a given surveillance technology poses a threat to the privacy and the freedom of the individual depends as much on the good will (or lack of it) of those who use the data as much as it does on the technology itself.

Some groups in the U. S. have little confidence in the average police organization already, and see drones as yet another weapon that will be turned against them.  Genuine cases of police who abuse their authority should not be tolerated, but statistics can be used by both sides in a controversy about arrest rates of minority populations to show either that blatant discrimination goes on (as it surely does in some cases), or to show that because certain groups historically commit more crimes, they naturally show up more in the category of suspicious persons that tend to be interrogated and surveilled.  There is no easy answer to this problem, which is best dealt with on a local level by identifying particular problems and solving them one by one.  Blanket condemnations either of police or of minority groups does no good.

When all is said and done, the question really is, do we trust those who use surveillance drones and the databases where the drone data will wind up?  Any society that functions has to have a minimum level of trust among its citizens and in its vital institutions, including those that enforce the law.  Surveillance drones can help catch criminals, no doubt.  But if they are abused to persecute law-abiding private citizens, or even if they are just perceived to contribute to such abuse, surveillance drones could end up causing more problems than they solve.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Sources:  On June 7, 2018, Slate carried the article "The Next Frontier of Police Surveillance Is Drones," by April Glaser, at https://slate.com/technology/2018/06/axon-and-dji-are-teaming-up-to-make-surveillance-drones-and-the-possibilities-are-frightening.html.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the U. S. Bill of Rights and on China's Social Credit System. 


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