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Surveillance Drones to Monitor Backyard Parties in New York City, Prompting Privacy Concerns

by Chloe Baker
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Airport Protests

Residents participating in outdoor gatherings and barbecues across New York City this upcoming weekend may encounter an unexpected presence overseeing their celebrations: a police surveillance drone.

The New York City Police Department has unveiled plans to initiate a trial phase for unmanned aerial vehicles in response to complaints about large assemblies, including private events, during the Labor Day weekend. This announcement was made during a press conference held on Thursday.

Assistant NYPD Commissioner, Kaz Daughtry, articulated the intentions behind this move: “If reports indicate the presence of a substantial crowd or a sizable party occurring in a backyard, we will be deploying our resources to conduct an aerial assessment of the event.” The drones are slated to be dispatched in scenarios where sizeable gatherings have been reported.

However, the introduction of this initiative has immediately sparked concerns from advocates of privacy and civil liberties. The contentious aspect of using these drones for surveillance raises questions about potential breaches of prevailing laws governing police surveillance activities.

One critic, Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist associated with the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed apprehensions about this development. He invoked the “POST Act,” a city law enacted in 2020, which mandates transparency from the NYPD regarding its surveillance strategies. Schwarz remarked, “This announcement is disconcerting and contradicts the principles of the POST Act. Deploying drones in this manner has shades of a science fiction narrative.”

The announcement was made in the context of a security briefing concerning J’ouvert, an annual Caribbean festival that commemorates the end of slavery and attracts numerous participants alongside heightened police presence in Brooklyn. According to Daughtry, the drones are expected to respond to both “priority” and “non-priority” calls beyond the scope of the parade route.

New York City is following a broader trend by increasingly incorporating drones into policing operations. Statistical records maintained by the city underscore that the police department has employed drones for public safety and emergency situations on 124 occasions this year, a significant increase from the mere four instances recorded in all of 2022. Drones were observed in action following incidents such as a parking garage collapse and a giveaway event marred by unruly behavior.

Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has expressed a desire to harness the “limitless” possibilities of drones, using Israel’s drone usage as an exemplar after his recent visit to the country.

Nonetheless, as drone technology proliferates, privacy advocates assert that corresponding regulations have not kept pace, thus enabling potential invasive surveillance that would be legally questionable if conducted by human police officers. Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), highlighted this concern: “One of the most significant worries stemming from the rapid deployment of aerial surveillance tools is the dearth of safeguards against the deployment of these cameras directed at our backyards or even our bedrooms.”

In response to an inquiry seeking clarification on drone policies, the NYPD did not provide further information. A spokesperson for Mayor Adams shared guidelines aimed at simplifying drone operation for private individuals, though these guidelines do not address whether the NYPD has specific drone surveillance policies.

Recent findings from the American Civil Liberties Union reveal that approximately 1,400 police departments across the United States are currently integrating drones into their operations in various capacities. Federal regulations generally limit drone flights to the operator’s visual line of sight, although numerous departments have sought exemptions. The report anticipates a substantial uptick in drone usage among police departments.

Cahn, the privacy advocate, emphasized that city authorities should be more forthcoming with the public about the existing applications of drones in policing, underpinned by clear guidelines that forestall unwarranted surveillance in the future. He asserted, “It is evident that deploying a drone over a backyard barbecue is a step that raises concerns among many New Yorkers.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about surveillance drones

What is the purpose behind using surveillance drones during outdoor events in New York City?

The New York City Police Department plans to employ surveillance drones during outdoor gatherings, including private events, to address complaints about large crowds and gatherings, particularly over the Labor Day weekend. The drones will be utilized to monitor these events and assess the scale of the gatherings.

How did privacy and civil liberties advocates respond to the introduction of surveillance drones?

Privacy and civil liberties advocates expressed immediate concerns and backlash in response to the announcement of surveillance drones being used for monitoring outdoor events. Critics have raised questions about the potential violation of existing laws regulating police surveillance and the implications of deploying drones in such a manner.

What is the “POST Act” mentioned in the article?

The “POST Act” refers to a city law that was enacted in 2020. This law mandates transparency from the New York City Police Department regarding its surveillance tactics and practices. The critics argue that deploying surveillance drones in this context may conflict with the principles outlined in the “POST Act.”

How frequently have drones been used by the New York City police for public safety and emergency purposes?

According to data maintained by the city, the police department has employed drones for public safety and emergency situations a total of 124 times during the current year. This represents a substantial increase from only four instances recorded throughout the entirety of the previous year.

What is the stance of Mayor Eric Adams regarding the use of drones by the police?

Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has shown support for the integration of drones into police operations. He views drones as having significant potential and has cited Israel’s use of drone technology as a blueprint to follow after his recent visit to the country.

What concerns do privacy advocates have about the increasing use of surveillance drones?

Privacy advocates are concerned that the regulations governing the use of surveillance drones have not kept pace with the rapid advancement of technology. This lack of regulations could potentially lead to invasive surveillance that would be deemed illegal if conducted by human police officers, raising questions about individual privacy and civil liberties.

What recommendations have privacy advocates made to city officials?

Privacy advocates recommend that city officials provide more transparency to the public regarding the current and potential uses of drones in policing. They emphasize the need for clear guidelines and safeguards that prevent unwarranted surveillance and protect individual privacy.

How common is the use of drones among police departments in the United States?

According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, approximately 1,400 police departments across the United States are currently using drones in various capacities. The report suggests that the use of drones is expected to increase significantly among police departments in the future.

What is the opinion of Albert Fox Cahn regarding drone deployment?

Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), expresses concerns about the lack of protections against invasive surveillance. He highlights the worry that aerial surveillance tools like drones could be used to monitor private spaces, raising ethical and privacy concerns.

How did the NYPD and Mayor’s office respond to inquiries about their drone policies?

In response to inquiries about their drone policies, the New York City Police Department did not provide further information. The Mayor’s office shared guidelines that make it easier for private drone operators to fly in the city, but these guidelines do not address the specific drone surveillance policies of the NYPD.

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1 comment

AlexJournalist September 1, 2023 - 4:58 pm

this iz sum serious stuff, them dr0nes hoverin’ ovr parties? no bueno, privac concerns r real ya kno?

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