Police in Grand Forks, North Dakota are hailing their new fleet of drones as the “vanguard of police work,” according to the Guardian. But privacy activists are worried that the drones may be a threat to constitutional rights.
Officers in Grand Forks have been operating a fleet of drones, some small enough to fit in a suitcase, others in a larger, fixed-wing design. The department is one of only about a dozen departments across the country testing drones.
The Grand Forks PD have used their Qube unmanned aerial vehicles to take images of auto accidents, to monitor flooding from the Red River, and to find a car accident victim who wandered off due to a concussion. In another case, a drone was used to find a suspect who tried to hide in the brush.
“We see ourselves as the vanguard of the safe use of small UAVs for law enforcement,” said deputy sheriff Alan Frazier.
However, many drone programs are not as benign as the uses the Grand Forks department have thus far put their drones to. Some drone programs are built for intensive surveillance even featuring facial recognition programs that can scan faces of people on the street. Some can scan license plates from hundreds of yards away.
Privacy advocates worry that these devices are an invasion of privacy. More worrisome are those who say that such technologies are being used without telling the public.
The ACLU’s Jay Stanley is worried, according to the Guardian. “Whenever there’s a powerful new technology–license plate readers are a good example–the police vigorously adopt it. And they often try to keep it secret.”
“We are in the very early days here. The current baby steps the police are taking to use drones will be replaced by a much broader use if we don’t act first to put in place commonsense regulations,” Stanley said.
But the Grand Forks police have taken surveys and found that citizens like the idea of police drones. In fact, people have been ” strikingly relaxed” about the use of drones.
Sheriff Frazier said, “There’s been a lot of misnomers about these craft as covert spy tools… We don’t use them covertly at all.”
But folks were less interested when police asked them whether or not using drones to hand out traffic fines was a good idea.
This mirrors attitudes in other polls. When people are asked about drone use that gets a bit more personal than air strikes in foreign lands people are often found to be more skeptical of the efficacy of drones.
A poll last year of over one thousand Americans found that only 37 percent of respondents thought drones were a “necessary” piece of equipment for police and fifty-eight percent said that police were already “going too far” in the use of drones.
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