Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Readers: Say 'No' to Unmanned Police Spy Planes

To recap last week's reader poll question, 217 readers responded to the question:
Should the Houston Police Department use unmanned surveillance aircraft for traffic enforcement and covert operations?
Of those, 72 percent opposed use of unmanned spy planes in urban Houston, while 28% favored the idea.

A couple of the readers who favored the idea left comments in this post saying the use of unmanned spy drones is no different from current police use of helicopters, but I don't think that's entirely accurate. For starters, it begs the argument, if it's the "same" as a helicopter, and HPD has helicopters, why buy this new gadget?

The most important service of a helicopter is transporting people, getting to the scene of an emergency despite traffic at any time of day, but this plane won't do that. As for aerial surveillance, the noisy helicopter gives automatic notice when it's around, while the spy plane is designed for covert viewing. Indeed, the amount of visual intrusion from humans in a helicopter is advanced by a magnitude of scale with an unmanned spy drone, which will have long-range cameras in all directions, constantly recording for future analysis.

From a constitutional perspective, this bizarrely would not violate any Fourth Amendment rights under current Supreme Court standards, for reasons I've criticized at length in the past. It's the same legal standard that has occasionally protected shopping mall voyeurs taking upskirt photos on escalators. Basically the law says it's not an invasion of privacy to take your picture if someone is in a place they have the legal right to be and takes a line of sight shot, even if they use intense magnification from a distance. While this protects paparazzi who want to shoot pics of naked movie stars suntanning in their backyards, the precedents establishing this standard have for the most part been set in law enforcement cases.

So if they're "just looking" (after all, as Houston PD Chief Harold Hurtt says, if you're not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?), police can fly their toy camera plane around town and peek into backyards all day, under this theory, without violating our rights as currently formulated by SCOTUS.

One commenter envisioned a use that would violate current Supreme Court standards, "If they put IR [infrared] on it and start randomly looking for hot spots where people are growing pot it might" violate Fourth Amendment rights. That's exactly correct, at least under under current Supreme Court rulings, if you agree with the Court's limited interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.

Myself, I believe that radical technological innovations (like quiet spy planes with 360-degree cameras rigged with powerful telephoto lenses) require a reworking of these old standards of privacy which have rapidly become inadequate to handle invasive technology. I don't know exactly where that line should be drawn, but I know when this type of invasive technology is legal for use by domestic police, a new line needs to be drawn.

Others questioned whether it's appropriate for police departments to purchase military equipment for use against their own citizens. That already happens, of course, with SWAT and other specialized units, and even to some extent with average cops. Today's officers are often so larded down with equipment on their utility belts they can hardly run. (At the Austin PD, IMO, this trend has reached a point of absurdity.) But using military spy equipment against your own people takes that concept to a new level, and makes us wonder how far police departments will go mimicking police tactics more commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan against our military enemies.

Someone else said simply, "it's not how I want my tax dollars spent," and given the decrepit state of the Fourth Amendment, I think that's the bottom line. Houston PD can't put enough officers on the street, but they're going to spend millions on expensive toys and gadgets. That spy plane won't make one more arrest, won't write one more traffic ticket, and it won't quell a single domestic disturbance. All it will do is take pictures of from the sky, for as long as HPD is willing to pay the gasoline bill. I think most people in Houston would prefer they pay a few more officer salaries with that money, instead.

This was just a demonstration of the technology, HPD said, they haven't purchased it yet. Let's hope they pass; it would be a big waste of time and money and set a bad precedent.


Anonymous said...

I expect it will happen within a few months after a spy drone is deployed: Some hotshot teenager with a hotrod laser, or an intensly focused mirror, or a heat gun rigged from a kitchen microwave oven, will blind one of these things or disable it and bring it down.

Anonymous said...

I agree that technology means laws sometimes have to change. But that's just it--the law needs to change, not the standards for the 4th amendment. So if it's legal to take a picture of someone in a restroom under that standard, make a law that makes it illegal. If narrowly drafted for a specific purpose (I forgot all the con law BS that goes here), it will stand up to scrutiny. As for naked movie stars, if they don't want to be photographed they shouldn't be naked outside. That's the risk they take, even at extreme distances. They can get a bigger fence, higher hedges, etc., to try and help. But that's a risk they take being out in plain sight.

If seen by others, even plain-sight illegal acts on your own curtilage are not considered "searches" under the 4th amendment (one of the few exceptions that I agree with).

None of this really has much to do with the helicopter, except to the extent that the 4th amendment would apply would apply to any searches--not, however, to tracking suspects, public safety in times of mass evacuation (Not sure how well this thing would do with an oncoming hurricane though), or watching high-crime areas to see what's going on in a certain area. Now, we all know the gov't abuses their power and stretches the rules to the limit or beyond, but as proposed this plane is the same as a helicopter. The only difference is that it would fly higher and be quieter, allowing for long-term surveillance where a helicopter would let the bad guys know they're being watched. So the main purpose for a helicopter is not always for getting people from one place to the other. That's almost never the purpose in municipal law enforcement, as a matter of fact. It's for surveillance and for tracking fleeing suspects. The unmanned plane could stay up longer, without being seen, in situations where a warrant had been obtained or to watch drug buys, exchanges, etc.

That being said, it's a waste of tax dollars. Glad I don't live in Houston.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Of course, it doesn't matter how high the hedge if the government has a spy plane hovering overhead with a telephoto lens. And naturally, everybody knows police would never use surveillance cameras for voyeurism, right?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree with you, 8:36, that's the current SCOTUS interpretation, BTW, I just think SCOTUS has diminished the 4th Amdt on behalf of law enforcement in ways that have reduced people's "reasonable expectation of privacy" too far, and that the pendulum must soon begin to move in the other direction. best,

Anonymous said...

So much for community policing. Crime control and due process continue the tug-o-war.

Anonymous said...

Of course, it doesn't matter how high the hedge if the government has a spy plane hovering overhead with a telephoto lens.

The cure for that is to not be outside naked. I have a hard time saying that the standard as applied to this situation is inaccurate. You have no expectation of privacy for being outside, even in your own yard.

And naturally, everybody knows police would never use surveillance cameras for voyeurism, right?

I've already said that they would if given the chance. But the problem would only come if the cameras were inside our homes. You have no expectation of privacy when out in a public place. You do have the right not to be searched, but not to be free from a camera knowing where you are. If they put the cameras on your property and looking in, that's bad. On a street and looking down the street--wasteful but not illegal.

Is it closer to a police state and a waste of tax dollars? Absolutely. Is it unconstitutional for the police to have a camera looking down a street? Absolutely not. Ripe for a abuse? You betcha.

I just think SCOTUS has diminished the 4th Amdt on behalf of law enforcement in ways that have reduced people's "reasonable expectation of privacy" too far

Now there's an understatement. But when you look at the big picture, being outside really does not give you an expectation of privacy.

Everything can be abused. That's how we got the exceptions to the 4th amendment in the first place. Cops would do something stupid, and the courts would decide if it was stupid enough to warrant exclusion of the evidence or if it was an exception to the rule.

Anonymous said...

So much for community policing. Crime control and due process continue the tug-o-war.

Please tell me how this is a due process issue. Not to mention what community policing has to do with it. Unless you're Joe Horn, anyway.

Raymond E. Foster said...

The following is a digest of the National Institute of Justice National dated October 10, 2007, concerning the domestic Law Enforcement use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as UAVs, is a rapidly emerging technology that has exceptional appeal to law enforcement. A UAS consists of an unmanned aircraft, an aircraft control station, and command and control links. UAS are considered as aircraft. These aircraft can often be flown autonomously and at great distances from the command station. In addition, these aircraft can be very small, under 25 lbs and still carry enough equipment to provide video downlink capabilities. The operation of a UAS by a public agency, whether it is Federal, State or Local Law Enforcement, is enforced by FAA regulations and Federal statutes.


Anonymous said...

If you're talking about wasted tax dollars, using the UAS would necessarily be much cheaper than a helicopter, just in maintainance and fuel costs alone. While I concede that the drone could be used to spy into backyards that are otherwise private, it cannot be a justification for denying the police a useful tool to say that it might be abused. Some police abuse their guns, so are we to disarm all of them. Some police use their lights and sirens to avoid having to stop at red lights outside of official police business--do we deny police the use of lights and sirens at other times?

Instead, imagine the dangers and destruction caused by high-speed chases that could be avoided. The police stop the chase as soon as the drone is in place, and simply track the perpetrator til he stops, then surround and arrest him without endangering other drivers. If the drone is set to monitor high-crime areas, we might even solve crimes that would otherwise go unpunished because the range of view of the drone is so much greater than the patrolman can cover at a single time.

If the justification for denying the tool to police is simply a blanket mistrust for the authorities, then you might as well just move to a cave in the outback. If you can't place any trust at all in public servants, then there is no point in having them.

Anonymous said...


Deb said...

Speaking of APD's ridiculously loaded-down uniforms and militaristic infiltrations into local law enforcement, here's the flipside:


So now local law enforcement is training the army on local urban combat missions.

Suppose the army might then 'thank' a department with borrowed use of fun army toys like spy drones (thereby escaping the public's eye as it wouldn't go through a local purchasing process).