Today, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it has obtained drones from the Seattle Police Department, and will be seeking approval from the Police Commission to deploy them in SWAT operations and tactical events. Even if limited in this way, drones pose serious privacy concerns. Because drones are more inexpensive than a helicopter, they can be used for minor investigations that would not warrant a more expensive aerial unit; and because drones are less obtrusive than a helicopter, they can be used for completely surreptitious surveillance that a helicopter could never perform — and could pose particular threats to privacy when combined with other technology like facial recognition software, infrared night vision cameras, or microphones to record personal conversations. The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) questions whether the marginal benefits to SWAT operations justify the serious threat to privacy an LAPD drone program could pose. Indeed, LAPD got these drones because the Seattle residents emphatically rejected the Seattle PD’s use of drones, even if limited to hostage situations and search-and-rescue operations.
ACLU SoCal applauds the LAPD for taking the first steps to make this process public and transparent, by notifying the public of their interest in these drones and allowing the decision about whether to deploy this new kind of surveillance technology to be made by a public body, the Police Commission. The Police Commission should have a full public discussion of whether the LAPD should have such an intrusive technology at all before moving forward. And, before any LAPD drone takes flight over the skies of Los Angeles, the LAPD must put in place strong policies to ensure that the use of drones is limited to the narrow and approved purposes; that binding policies on use, access, retention and sharing of information gathered from drones are in place to protect privacy; and that there is an auditing and oversight mechanism in place to ensure those policies are followed.Hector Villagra is executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. Follow Hector on Twitter.