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.

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 legislature didn’t officially convene until March 5—they thought this issue was so important that they moved the bill during their committee organizing sessions. Then Montana pulled up from behind, passing two drones bills all the way through their Senate by mid-February. But, Virginia raced ahead, sending two bills to their governor’s desk by the beginning of March, where they currently await signature.
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


Final update to this chart 1/22/14. Status of 2014 legislation is available here.

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…

Florida Poised to Become First State to Regulate Surveillance Drones

Florida Poised to Become First State to Regulate Surveillance Drones

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:23pm

State legislatures around the country are gearing up to take action on domestic surveillance drones. Maine has a bill introduced, as do Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas. In Virginia a hearing has already been held on a…

Is All (Drone) Politics Local?

Is All (Drone) Politics Local?

By Matthew Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Fellow, ACLU of Northern California at 4:15pm

The next time a cop sees a picture of you, that picture may not have been taken by a person at all. Unmanned flying drones can allow their operators to remotely...

Drones: Useful Potential vs. the Dark Side

Drones: Useful Potential vs. the Dark Side

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:36am

One of the questions I’ve been asked about my post last week on Milo Danger and his DIY paintball-armed drone is: what does that mean for privacy?

Part of the answer is that the paintball drone is a reminder that drones are a generative…

The DIY Armed Drone

The DIY Armed Drone

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 3:32pm

I was on a radio show earlier today (the “Your Call” show on KALW, a local public radio station in San Francisco) when a man called in to tell how he had successfully built his own armed drone, using commercially available equipment. He…

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