back

Should Law Enforcement Agencies Use Drones to Fight Crime?

A national movement may be emerging against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement, as growing concerns about privacy clash with the potential value of using the unmanned aerial vehicles to fight crime.

Flight logs reveal that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly borrowing border-patrol drones for domestic surveillance operations, according to a Washington Post report.

Between 2010 and 2012, Custom and Border Protection flew 700 surveillance missions on behalf of other agencies, according to the newspaper. The figures were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group.

Crime Tracking

Law enforcement agencies are attracted to drones because they can do so much, the New York Times reported. They can record video images, produce heat maps and help track stranded hikers, criminals and others.

But they also arouse fears of government surveillance, the report said.

When the Alameda County sheriff in Oakland, Calif., proposed buying a drone to help track criminals, opponents howled in protest, including one group that uses the Twitter handle @N.O.M.B.Y. – “Not Over My Backyard”  – the newspaper reported.

Legislatures are beginning to place limits on the use of drones.

A senator in Montana sponsored a bill that would require police to use a warrant before collecting evidence, according to the New York Times. The use of drones is fine for surveying forest fires, said Sen. Matt Rosendale, the bill’s sponsor. But he worries about using them for government surveillance.

National Pushback

Slate.com recently reported a national pushback against drones.

In Seattle, the police department dropped its drone program and agreed to return the equipment, after a particularly raucous city council hearing. Both houses of the Virginia legislature imposed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement and other regulatory agencies. A bill was pending in Florida to require warrants for police use of drones and similar legislation had been introduced in at least 13 other state legislatures, at the time of Slate’s report.

Close Encounters

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for federal regulation of drones during an interview on 60 Minutes.

She described her own close encounter with a drone.

“I’m in my home and there’s a demonstration out front. And I go to peek out the window and there’s a drone facing me,” she said.

The issue is complicated, Feinstein said.

“When is a drone picture a benefit to society? When does it become stalking? When does it invade privacy? How close to a home can a drone go?”

Feinstein said she has questions about when law enforcement should use drones, when warrants should be required and when government use is proper.

More Debate Expected

More debate is expected as more commercial drones take off, in what 60 Minutes said is expected to become a multibillion industry.

A federal law enacted in 2012 paved the way for drones to be used commercially and is making it easier for law enforcement to obtain them, according to the New York Times.

Congress passed a bill to welcome commercial drones to the U.S. air space by 2015 and the FAA released its first drone “roadmap” in November, according to the UPI.

Feinstein told 60 Minutes regulation is needed, perhaps relating to size and type for private use, certification for those flying them and limits on uses allowed.

Explore Programs