Department vows not to use unmanned craft “randomly”
Oct 25, 2012
The Seattle Police Department plans to deploy unmanned surveillance drones over the city as it has become one of the first law enforcement agencies in the US to be granted permission by the federal government to do so.
The unmanned craft will be fitted with surveillance cameras and an infrared “eye” that can see in the dark.
Officers planning to parade the drones tonight during a public presentation will display a Draganflyer X-6 drone weighing 4.5 pounds. The drone can travel up to 30 mph and can fly as high as 8,000 feet.
Privacy and civil rights concerns have been raised by the move, prompting police to issue a draft operating policy manual that states:
“…the onboard cameras will be turned … away from occupied structures, to minimize inadvertent video or still images of uninvolved persons.”
The manual also says, “All video and still images will be maintained in strict compliance with SPD policies and procedures”. It also claims that under no circumstances will the drones be used for “random surveillance.”
Seattle police previously demonstrated the drones to news crews since purchasing them last year:
The Sky Valley Chronicle, which takes issue with the drone roll out, notes that the SPD is “the same police department that last year the U.S. Justice Department found – after an 11-month probe – had engaged in “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.”
“And that was with no drones in the air.” the report urges.
The SPD demonstration takes place at the Garfield Community Center, 2323 E. Cherry St., tonight from 6pm. The meeting is open to the public and attendees will be able to ask questions and submit comments.
After Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization earlier this year, requiring the FAA to permit the operation of drones weighing 25 pounds or less, observers predicted that anything up to 30,000 spy drones could be flying in U.S. skies by 2020.
As we reported earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced in a solicitation that it would be testing small spy drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, signaling that the devices will be used for “public safety” applications in the near future.
Much larger drones are already being used in law enforcement operations across the country. The most infamous case involved the Brossart family in North Dakota, who were targeted for surveillance with a Predator B drone last year after six missing cows wandered onto their land. Police had already used the drone, which is based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on two dozen occasions beforehand.
As we have previously reported, some police departments have expressed a willingness to arm drones with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Police departments are also attempting to get approval to use surveillance blimps that hover over cities and watch for “suspicious activity.”
The U.S. Army recently tested a football field-sized blimp over the city of New Jersey. The blimp can fly for a period of 21 hours and “is equipped with high-tech sensors that can monitor insurgents from above.”
Recently released FAA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the FAA gave the green light for surveillance drones to be used in U.S. skies despite the fact that during the FAA’s own tests the drones crashed numerous times even in areas of airspace where no other aircraft were flying.
The documents illustrate how the drones pose a huge public safety risk, contradicting a recent coordinated PR campaign on behalf of the drone industry which sought to portray drones as safe, reliable and privacy-friendly.
Critics have warned that the FAA has not acted to establish any safeguards whatsoever, and that congress is not holding the agency to account.
FAA documents recently obtained and released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation have confirmed that the roll out of domestic unmanned drones will, for the most part, be focused solely on the mass surveillance of the American people. In a report, EPIC recently noted:
With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology. The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.”
Not to be outdone, the Seattle Police Department’s drone comes with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment.
The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of “critical law enforcement operations.”
However, the FAA didn’t just rubber stamp all drone requests. For example, the Ogden Police Departmentwanted to use its “nocturnal surveillance airship [aka blimp] . . . for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA disapproved the request, finding Odgen’s proposed use “presents an unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”
Another report released last month, by the Congressional Research Service found that ”the prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.”
“Police officers who were once relegated to naked eye observations may soon have, or in some cases already possess, the capability to see through walls or track an individual’s movements from the sky,” the report notes. “One might question, then: What is the proper balance between the necessity of the government to keep people safe and the privacy needs of individuals?”
The “ability to closely monitor an individual’s movements with pinpoint accuracy may raise more significant constitutional concerns than some other types of surveillance technology,” CRS says.
“Unless a meaningful distinction can be made between drone surveillance and more traditional forms of government tracking,” the report notes, “existing jurisprudence suggests that a reviewing court would likely uphold drone surveillance conducted with no individualized suspicion when conducted for purposes other than strict law enforcement.”
Last month, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the biggest union of law officials in the US, issued a stark warning about increased drone use. The union released guidelines calling for a reassessment of the potential widespread use of aerial drones for domestic policing.
In another recent development, a prominent private investigator operating out of New York and Texas has noted that anyone engaging in any large scale protest, is now subjected to scanning by drones that skim their personal information from their cell phones.
Despite all these facts, close to half of Americans say they are in favour of police departments deploying surveillance drones domestically.
Steve Watson is the London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, and Prisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham in England.