Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that can be equipped with high definition, live-feed video cameras, thermal infrared video cameras, heat sensors, and radar—all of which allow for sophisticated and persistent surveillance. Drones can record video or still images in daylight or infrared. They can also be equipped with other capabilities, such as cell-phone interception technology, as well as backend software tools like license plate readers, face recognition, and GPS trackers. There have been proposals for law enforcement to attach lethal and non-lethal weapons to drones.
How Drones Work
Drones vary in size, from tiny quadrotors to large fixed aircraft. They are harder to spot than airplane or helicopter surveillance and can sometimes stay in the sky for a longer duration. Some drones are tethered to the ground with a very thin wire so that they do not need to land to recharge their batteries.
Drones are different than manned aircraft because they are generally smaller, less expensive, faster to deploy, and are able to fly at low altitudes and, in some cases, indoors. Some drones are controlled manually through hand-held devices. These usually have a video camera attached to them, not just for surveillance, but for the operator to view through the camera to control the drone. Some drones may also be autonomous in the sense that they can fly and perform certain functions without continuous operator engagement.
Civil agencies often use drones to survey land and monitor animal populations. Many academic institutions acquire drones for educational purposes. Private parties often use drones for recreation, research, and journalism. On some occasions, private individuals have used drones to spy on people through windows.
The technology that can be equipped to a drone is disconcerting, as they are capable of highly advanced and near-constant surveillance.
What Kinds Of Data Drones Collect
Drones can be equipped with various types of surveillance equipment that can collect high definition video and still images day and night. Drones can be equipped with technology allowing them to intercept cell phone calls, determine GPS locations, and gather license plate information. Drones can be used to determine whether individuals are carrying guns. Synthetic-aperture radar can identify changes in the landscape, such as footprints and tire tracks. Some drones are even equipped with facial recognition.
How Law Enforcement Uses Drones
Drones were originally used almost exclusively by military and intelligence agencies, but are now regularly used by federal, state, and local public safety agencies. Federal users include the FBI, ICE, U.S. Marshals, and the Coast Guard.
According to research from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, 347 U.S. police, sheriff, fire, and emergency response units acquired drones between 2009 and early 2017—primarily sheriff’s offices and local police departments.
Law enforcement agencies use drones for mass surveillance, crime investigation, search and rescue operations, locating stolen goods, and surveying land and infrastructure. In one 2017 case, Virginia police used a drone equipped with thermal imaging to locate a suspect hiding in the woods. Some police departments may purchase pairs of drones, which can be used to create 3-D images.
Customs and Border Protections (CBP) uses drones to patrol borders, and is looking into drones with facial recognition. CBP has used a sophisticated Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER) surveillance system, initially created for use in the war in Afghanistan, to detect the presence of people from as high as 25,000 feet.
In 2017, the U.S. Secret Service announced that it would incorporate drones into its overhead security-monitoring efforts. It also disclosed its plan to use a drone with electro-optical and infrared cameras on a microfilament tether during Pres. Donald Trump's visits to his golf club in New Jersey, in spite of the fact that doing so could lead to privacy violations of residences located within range.
Agencies with drones lend them to other law enforcement bodies. For example, in 2013 EFF reported that CBP had loaned use of its drones to external agencies some 500 times in three years.
Who Sells Drones
According to Business Insider, the world’s largest commercial drone maker is DJI, while AeroVironment is the largest manufacturers of drones for the military. Other popular, small drone manufacturers include 3D Robotics, Sensefly, Yuneec, Aerial Imaging Solutions, and Draganfly. According to FAA records, these are the most common brands obtained by domestic government agencies.
Many major defense contractors—including General Dynamics, Boeing, L3, and Lockheed Martin—sell drones to the federal government. Federal agencies patrolling the border have often used Predator drones manufactured by General Atomics, which have in turn been loaned to local and state law enforcement agencies.
Threats Posed by Drones
Drones pose a multitude of privacy risks because they can amass large amounts of data on private citizens, including those engaging in constitutionally protected activity, even if they have not been accused of a crime.
Most states don’t require law enforcement to obtain search warrants before using drones for search or surveillance. Fortunately, at least 18 states—Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin—require law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances to obtain a search warrant to use drones for surveillance or to conduct a search.
Some cities have passed municipal regulations restricting government use of drones, such as limits on video storage and retention of personally identifiable information. However, the concern that drones might be used for more generalized surveillance remains. This includes the possibility that video of bystanders collected incidentally to search and rescue operations, land surveying, or police chase operations may be subjected to face recognition or other forms of biometric analysis.
In late 2015, the Department of Homeland Security released guidance for state and local agencies using drones. It suggested limits on how drones collect data, how that data is used, how long it is retained, and to whom and for what purposes it is disseminated. It even recommends ongoing assessment of privacy impacts, as well as a redress program. But the guidance isn’t legally binding, and did not address drones used by law enforcement for investigative purposes.
EFF's Work on Drones
We began sounding the alarm about the government's domestic use of drones back in 2011.
We sued U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration for data on certifications and authorizations issues, information on drone license applicants, the types of drones agencies wanted to fly, and the types of activities they wanted to use drones for. This prompted the FAA to release thousands of pages of records of drone applications and authorizations, giving us insight on the surveillance capabilities of drones, and even how drones are used by universities. We also sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more about CBP’s drone lending program, where it lends drones to other agencies with little or no oversight.
In 2012, we partnered with MuckRock and launched the 2012 Drone Census, encouraging people to file public records requests with their own police agencies. 375 public records requests were filed.
We have supported legislation in various states, including California and Washington, restricting drone use to protect people’s privacy. In addition, EFF has also stood up for the rights of private drone enthusiasts to protect educational and hobbyist activities, such as controlled drone combat games, from being criminalized.
EFF v. U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
For More Information
EFF Surveillance Drones Archive
Current Unmanned Aircraft State Law Landscape (National Conference of State Legislatures)
Drone Law Journal (Peter Sachs)
Drones At Home: Public Safety Drones (Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College)
Most recently updated August 28, 2017