ACLU Police Drones Skyfire Consulting

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Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The American Civil Liberties Union has published a paper titled “Eye in the Sky Policing Needs Strict Limits.”  The piece was written by Jay Stanley: in the paper, Stanley explores the potential pitfalls in Drone as First Responder (DFR) programs, and how those concerns may be met.

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Matt Sloane, CEO and Founder of Skyfire Consulting, reached out to Mr. Stanley to discuss the ACLU concerns first hand.  DRONELIFE is honored to publish this exclusive guest post outlining their discussion and proposing real solutions to addressing community concerns.

The following is a guest post  by Matt Sloane, CEO and Founder of Skyfire Consulting and Atlanta Drone Group.  DRONELIFE neither accepts nor makes payments for guest posts.

Privacy and Drone First Responder Programs

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union, and specifically Jay Stanley, one of its senior policy analysts, released a report on Drone First Responder (DFR) programs in American law enforcement agencies.

One of the first sources quoted in that article was yours truly, so it’s important that I state up front and unequivocally that Skyfire advises every one of it’s clients on the importance of privacy and transparency as it develops UAS programs; and as time goes on, drone first responder programs.

It is for this reason that I reached out to Mr. Stanley, and asked if he was willing to engage in a broad sweeping discussion with me about the ACLU’s views on privacy and the use of drones in law enforcement agencies.

I found our conversation to be incredibly insightful, and I felt that after hanging up, I was better prepared to surface these concerns with our current and future customers.

In general, Stanley on behalf of the organization was generally more positive about police drone use than I expected; and in fact, he was quite forthcoming about certain situations where drones were a no-brainer: true emergencies like fires, auto accidents and gun violence.

Where he is less enthused about police drone use are things like domestic disputes, suspicious activity calls, wellness checks and random calls for service.

His concern was one of “mission creep,” where police drones are crisscrossing a city to check on these less urgent calls for service; and ultimately could lead to widespread surveillance; or at the very least, a perception of such.

It’s important that we don’t sleepwalk into a world of widespread aerial surveillance, that communities think very carefully about whether they want drone surveillance, and, if they decide to permit some operations, put in place guardrails that will prevent those operations from expanding.

In my opinion, this is a double-edged sword. As police departments face unprecedented staff shortages, it is true that many agencies are looking at drones to help “fill the gap” and respond to less serious concerns; and in fact, this is one of the most often cited statistics among existing DFR programs: how many calls were cleared without the need to send officers.

But it is understandable that citizens, particularly in low income and underserved communities may not want random overhead patrols; or at least what appear to be random patrols.

So how does an agency square these two sides of the issue? Stanley suggests that agencies don’t undertake Drone First Responder programs without first going to their city or town councils.

A threshold question is whether a community has been fully informed about a DFR program and has then decided that it wants its police department to deploy this tool. A police department should not, and should not be permitted to, deploy surveillance technologies without the consent of the community it serves.

Stanley also discusses at length the concern that while flying to 911 calls, drones may capture video en route; and asks whether that overflight video could be used to find other crimes that may not have been seen if not for that flight.

We should keep in mind that, with advances in AI, video is becoming a far more searchable, accessible, and analyzable — and therefore dangerous — set of data than it used to be. There will be a constant incentive on the part of both government and private contractors to run video datasets through machine learning algorithms for AI training purposes and to search for particular violations of the law or other facts of interest to law enforcement that might be buried within.

This is potentially a more difficult issue to solve. While it may be tempting to make a blanket statement that no video would be collected or recorded on the way to a 911 call, that video can be a useful tool in navigating drones being flown beyond visual line of sight.

In addition, as drones and software get more sophisticated, one has to ask if we should be taking advantage of sensors constantly flying through the air to collect things like air quality data, LiDAR sensor data of the world around us and other potential inputs – much like our vehicles do with all of the distancing and ranging sensors we have all come to rely on.

It is said that Tesla is not a car company, but in fact, a data collection company that happens to make cars. Could these drones become the same? Should they?

Another issue Stanley writes about in the white paper is the idea that drones may be a deescalation tool, avoiding potentially armed conflicts between police and potential suspects by using unarmed robots.

In short, he believes it’s too soon to make those claims.

It’s important not to make policy by anecdote. Anyone can come up with scenarios about how a technology will improve people’s lives and the life of a community. The real question is how it will play out over time in the complex and messy world, where it’s likely to have cascading effects that we can only dimly anticipate.

Finally, he addresses transparency. In addition to clearing police drone policies and procedures with city council, Stanley recommends being completely transparent when implementing drone first responder programs; making public information such as drone capabilities, drone policies, performance and results, and certain video of public interest.

Drones are a powerful and novel surveillance technology, and the public has a right to know how they’re being used and how that is working out — not only as a question of resources, but also because there are legitimate fears of the misuse of aerial surveillance.

We agree that agencies should publish as much information as they can – without endangering officer safety or infringing on citizens’ privacy further – to allow their citizens to be fully aware of what drones are and are not being used for.

This may include data about response times, arrests made as a result of drones being on scene, anonymized flight paths, and general information about types of calls responded to.

The majority of the 10-15 DFR programs in operation today have made significant efforts towards releasing all of the data they possibly can to their public – including drone video where appropriate – and we will continue to council agencies considering DFR programs to do so.

All in all, Stanley believes those 10-15 agencies operating DFR programs today are doing their very best to maintain high standards, and stick to strict policies that limit the infringement of civil liberties to situations where it is absolutely critical; but he makes no secret about the organizations concerns that the dozens – or hundreds – of police programs to come may not adhere to the same standards.

We don’t have to think current police officials are lying to understand that mission creep is a very real tendency. While controversial new police technologies are often unrolled in limited ways and accompanied by promises of best behavior, they may be overtaken by later adopters who brush aside the limits and promises of the early pioneers.

I truly appreciate the time I got to spend with Stanley over the phone, and in ongoing conversations about this issue, and believe it’s critical that we as a collective public safety drone industry consider privacy and transparency as we move forward at breakneck speed.

Matt Sloane is the CEO and founder of Skyfire Consulting and its parent company, Atlanta Drone Group.  Before he founded Atlanta Drone Group in 2014, Matt spent 14 years in various roles at CNN in Atlanta, including 12 years as a medical news producer and special projects manager for Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In addition to his work there, he worked as a certified Emergency Medical Technician for Emory EMS, working his way up to Chief of Resources and Planning for the department. Matt is an inaugural member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee on drones, a technical advisor to the International Association of Fire Chiefs technology council, and an FAA-certified pilot.