The Los Angeles Police Department’s recent acquisition of two drones has the ACLU concerned over potential privacy issues.
While the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California applauded the LAPD for being transparent about the department’s acquisition of the Draganflyer X6 drones, the group “questions whether the marginal benefits to SWAT operations justify the serious threat to privacy,” said executive director Hector Villagra.The ACLU worries that these drones will lead to privacy violations, claiming that drones can be used for "completely surreptitious surveillance that a helicopter could never perform." The ACLU notes that drones could be retrofitted with facial recognition software and infrared scanning technology.
This technology could certainly be used by police helicopters, and it is not clear whether police surveillance with drones can be too much more invasive than police helicopters. Cases like California v. Ciraolo and Florida v. Riley establish that the police can use planes and helicopters to observe people without undertaking a Fourth Amendment search. But those cases note that people cannot reasonably expect that their activities can be undertaken without the possibility of being observed from aircraft flying in publicly accessible airspace (O'Connor's opinion concurring in the judgment in Riley especially emphasizes the importance of public accessibility to airspace).
It is not clear that drones would be able to navigate beyond the airspace where planes and helicopters can navigate. The Fourth Amendment implications of drone observations by the government remains a grey area, and illustrates the importance of coherent, reasonable regulations that say where drones can and cannot operate.
In any event, the LAPD is not going to be using these drones immediately. And the LAPD points out that if it does end up using the drones, they will be used in narrow circumstances, such as hostage situations, or where harm is imminent. While the LAPD's use of these drones may be narrow, as the technology becomes more broadly available, the law will need to confront the Fourth Amendment implications of police drones.