Domestic Drones

U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. Read the ACLU’s full report on domestic drones here. 

Numerous states are considering (and some have passed) legislation regulating the use of drones. You can see a chart summarizing the developments around the country here. Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules to make it much easier for police nationwide to use domestic drones, but the law does not include badly needed privacy protections. The ACLU recommends the following safeguards:

USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Click here for information on the U.S. government’s use of drones overseas for targeted killings.

Eight Factors That Will Shape How America Adapts to Drones

Eight Factors That Will Shape How America Adapts to Drones

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 2:25pm
How domestic drones will affect our privacy depends on how the technology is used and deployed. And that depends on a lot of factors. Technologies never exist in isolation—their impact on society is always the result of interactions between the technology's potential, existing institutions and interests, and the law, architecture, and culture around them. We should put good privacy protections in place no matter what, but as drone technology unfolds, here are some of the factors that could influence the size and scope of their deployment within the United States:
Even Amidst a Host of Congressional Priorities, Drones Makes the Cut

Even Amidst a Host of Congressional Priorities, Drones Makes the Cut

By Sandra Fulton, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:00am

While Congress has been considering the idea of regulating domestic drone use for some time, yesterday kicked off the debate in earnest when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on "The Future of Drones in America:…

Five Reasons Why the Courts Aren’t Enough to Ensure Drone Privacy

Five Reasons Why the Courts Aren’t Enough to Ensure Drone Privacy

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:07pm

Yesterday the drone regulation bill in the Washington state legislature died, having failed to meet the cutoff date for moving to the House floor. Although our lobbyist there thought the bill would have passed both houses had the Democratic leadership…

We Already Have Police Helicopters, So What’s the Big Deal Over Drones?

We Already Have Police Helicopters, So What’s the Big Deal Over Drones?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:26am

As drone regulation legislation works its way through Congress and the 30 (so far) state legislatures where it has been introduced, one question that we hear a lot these days is, “we’ve had police helicopters for a long time, what’s so different…

Drone Legislation: What’s Being Proposed in the States?

Drone Legislation: What’s Being Proposed in the States?

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 3:15pm

It's a race to see which state will be the first to pass legislation governing domestic drone use. Coming out of the gate first was Florida, which passed a bill through several committees in the Senate back in January. This is notable since the Florida…

New Documents Reveal U.S. Marshals’ Drones Experiment, Underscoring Need for Government Transparency

New Documents Reveal U.S. Marshals’ Drones Experiment, Underscoring Need for Government Transparency

By Naomi Gilens, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 8:12am

The use of surveillance drones is growing rapidly in the United States...

Drone ‘Nightmare Scenario’ Now Has A Name: ARGUS

Drone ‘Nightmare Scenario’ Now Has A Name: ARGUS

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:06am

The PBS series NOVA, “Rise of the Drones,” recently aired a segment detailing the capabilities of a powerful aerial surveillance system known as ARGUS-IS, which is basically a super-high, 1.8 gigapixel resolution camera that can be mounted on a drone. As demonstrated in this clip, the system is capable of high-resolution monitoring and recording of an entire city. (The clip was written about in DefenseTech and in Slate.)

In the clip, the developer explains how the technology (which he also refers to with the apt name “Wide Area Persistent Stare”) is “equivalent to having up to a hundred Predators look at an area the size of a medium-sized city at once.”

The Softball Question That Wasn’t

The Softball Question That Wasn’t

By Matthew Harwood, Media Strategist, ACLU at 3:42pm

It should have been a softball question.

During a Google+ Hangout yesterday, conservative commentator Lee Doren asked President Obama whether he claims the authority to kill a U.S. citizen suspected of being associated with al Qaeda or associated…

Status of Domestic Drone Legislation in the States

Status of Domestic Drone Legislation in the States

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 12:21pm


Updated 1/22/14

We’re currently seeing an unprecedented surge of activity in state legislatures across the country aimed at regulating domestic surveillance drones. (My colleagues Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump have this recent piece detailing the trend.) Working closely with our lobbyists in state capitols around the country, we have been tracking this activity and working hard to make sure these privacy-protective bills become law. The chart below shows the current status of state legislation as we understand it. We will update this as we receive new information.

Checking Drone Power

Checking Drone Power

By Matthew Harwood, Media Strategist, ACLU at 10:00am

Yes, law enforcement drones are coming, but if Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has his way they won’t leave the ground without a judge okaying it first.

Yesterday, Poe introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act to ensure government, particularly…

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