ACLU Analyst: Drone Surveillance ‘Not Consistent With Our Nation’s Traditions’

By Ali Meyer | April 28, 2015 | 2:44pm EDT


FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2014 file photo, former Navy helicopter pilot and San Diego Gas & Electric unmanned aircraft operator Teena Deering holds a drone as it is prepared for takeoff near Boulevard, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

( - An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior policy analyst was critical of drone surveillance at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, saying that drone surveillance is “not consistent with our nation’s traditions.”

The event, titled “U.S. Civil Drone Policy,” focused on policy strategies to manage commercial, public and private unmanned aerial systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones, in U.S. airspace while supporting innovation and protecting privacy and personal freedom.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst focusing on speech, privacy and technology at the ACLU, said that “ACLU’s primary concern when it comes to drones is that they not to be used for mass suspicion and surveillance of U.S. populations.”

“Drones are a very powerful potential surveillance technology. There are technologies out there that create persistent surveillance of entire towns, neighborhoods and cities with a single camera, ultra-high resolution camera,” said Stanley.

“The kind of tracking that can be done with that kind of technology is a very serious privacy problem when people know everywhere that you go they know a lot about you. They know where you work and where you live, but also what friends and lovers you might be visiting at what hours, what kinds of religious, political, sexually oriented establishments or meetings you might be going to and many other things about you,” he said.

“So that is our primary concern around drones, and we called for regulation of police and government use of drones to ensure that they don’t become used for mass surveillance,” Stanley added. “Unfortunately, we have a long record of law enforcement giving into temptation to collect everything all the time about everybody just in case somebody engages in wrongdoing. We believe that’s not consistent with our nation’s traditions.

“The government does not look over your shoulder without a particular suspicion that you are doing something wrong. It doesn’t watch you just because you might be able to do something wrong,” Stanley said.

“So we have called for a set of rules that restrict law enforcement to launching a drone in particular circumstances where they have reason to believe it will collect evidence of wrongdoing or emergencies, and/or for other uses that there’s no reason to think would invade privacy, such as environmental issues or what have you and that law enforcement be explicit at its policies, its retention policies, its data retention policies and sharing policies, and so forth and that local law enforcement be subject to local democratic power,” he added.

“All too often we see what I call policymaking by procurement in which local law enforcement, rather than seeking the permission, let alone informing, let alone getting the permission of local democratic overseers, just goes out and starts buying new surveillance technology and deploying it before anybody even knows it’s on the ground,” he said.

“We’ve seen this with stingrays, license plate scanners and other technologies which are sensitive. You can argue either way about how these technologies should be used, but I think we should all be able to agree that we live in a democracy, and those kind of value judgments should be made democratically, not in secret by law enforcement,” Stanley said.

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