It’s an open secret that law enforcement is deploying drones to surveil the nationwide protests against racial injustice. Indeed, in an open letter, Democrats in Congress questioned why agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched drones and spy planes to monitor largely peaceful marches. The policy question of the moment, then, is not whether drones should be used by law enforcement. Rather, it’s whether manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers should sell drones to buyers who might misuse them, like the police.
A tactic companies often employ when engaging ethically problematic customers is the abnegation of responsibility. They assert they’re merely platform providers and therefore bear no responsibility for what buyers do with their technology. Events in recent weeks, however, make clear that sidestepping the complicity issue isn’t tenable (if it ever was). While drones might be used as a tool for good, law enforcement tells us, a lack of accountability, transparency, and oversight makes that a tough argument to swallow — and reinforces the notion that selling drones to police is at best irresponsible.
VentureBeat asked DJI, Parrot, and Skydio whether any customers were using their drones to keep tabs on protesters. Parrot declined to comment, while DJI said this isn’t something the company is tracking. (As of April, DJI drones had gone to 43 law enforcement agencies in 22 states to monitor social distancing around the pandemic, and partners like Axon continue to sell the company’s drones to police officers.) Skydio, which Forbes recently reported is in the midst of a pivot toward law enforcement contracts, said it wasn’t aware of customers using its drones to monitor peaceful protests.
“Skydio is firmly committed to developing drone technology, and the rules that govern the use of drones, in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “In our work with government customers, Skydio highlights and promotes the bedrock obligation to uphold civil liberties — including the First Amendment freedom to peaceably assemble and petition for change. [We] stand with those demonstrating for justice and equality, and we condemn anyone — uniformed, elected, or otherwise — who seeks to bring them harm. We are committed to developing technology in a responsible manner that advances both safety and liberty.”
On the distributor side, Skyfire Consulting, which tailors drone-based solutions to public safety agencies in the U.S., told VentureBeat it has several clients who have used aircraft in response to the protests. As for Flymotion, a competitor offering drones with long-range zoom cameras, thermal imaging sensors, loudspeakers, lighting systems, and facial recognition technology, it said its operation teams have directly assisted law enforcement in “protest operations.” (When reached for clarification, Flymotion said that none of those efforts involved the use of facial recognition.)
Certainly, it’s possible that police generally are using drones as a means of civil liberties-conscious observation. The Voice of San Diego reports that the Carlsbad Police Department, which has historically sought input on its drone program at public events and last year released internal logs describing drone flights in response to a records request, deployed drones in early June in coordination with officers on the ground ostensibly to prevent violence between protesters and antagonizers.
On the other hand, Carlsbad’s video of the protests will be retained for at least one year in accordance with departmental policy — or potentially longer in the case of active criminal investigations. (The American Civil Liberties Union argues that police drone footage should be kept no more than 24 hours to guard against unlawful spying.) That’s worrisome, considering dozens of cities around the country are reportedly using software that allows police to comb through surveillance footage to identify protesters.
Forty-four states have enacted laws regulating the use of drones by law enforcement, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, but only a fraction of those require a warrant before the government may use a drone. And while laws in Virginia and Oregon ban weapons being attached to police drones, Florida law explicitly defines law enforcement drones as devices that can carry a “lethal or nonlethal” payload.
In the absence of progress at the legislative level, it appears to be incumbent upon drone companies to reconsider whom they’re actively doing business with. While police drones can play a valuable role in, for instance, missing persons cases by covering areas of treacherous terrain faster than officers on foot can, a dearth of protections around their usage conjures fears about how law enforcement might abuse them.