UAV updateDrones used by police, firefighters raise privacy concerns

Published 8 August 2012

DHS is accelerating the use of unmanned drones by police and firefighters around the country with the intent of detecting fires, radiation leaks, and other potential threats, but Congress and privacy advocacy organizations think the se of drones raises several privacy issues

DHS is accelerating the use of unmanned drones by police and firefighters around the country with the intent of detecting fires, radiation leaks, and other potential threats, but Congress and privacy advocacy organizations think the se of drones raises several privacy issues.

The Los Angeles Times reports that in June 2010 researchers from the DHS ran tests with the drones about forty miles north of Los Angeles county to see whether the drones could detect a tiny box (about the size of a cigarette pack) which was emitting low but safe levels of radiation. The experiment worked as the drone was able to detect where the radiation was emitting from.

Think of Fukushima or some awful event like that,” Commander Bob Osborne, who hosted the tests as part of his job of finding and buying new gadgets for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, told the L.A. Times. “We wanted to know: Will it even be able to detect radiation? And it did.”

The experiment was the first in an expanding $3.2 million effort by DHS to accelerate the use of drones in big cities across the country.

DHS has awarded grants to at least thirteen police and fire departments to use the drones, but restrictions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the difficulty of using the drones have kept most of the programs grounded.

That should change soon as Congress passed a law this year requiring the FAA to ease restrictions on commercial drone use in U.S. airspace by 2015. Next year the administration is expected to issue a rule allowing law enforcement and first responders to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Ft. Sill center will test drones in “real-world situations where individual lives are in imminent danger,” according to a recent presentation given by John Appleby, DHS program manager for the tests, who also indicated that DHS officials are drafting recommendations on how to protect people’s privacy.

Some people, however, are worried about the privacy of citizens and how the drones can affect that. Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco told the L.A. Times of her concerns on the issue.

This is putting the cart before the horse where DHS and other federal agencies are looking to put money toward drone use without looking at what it means for privacy and civil liberties.”

Even members of Congress are not exactly excited about the use of the drones and the potential impact it has on citizens. Representative Edward J. Markey(D-Massachusetts), co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, proposed a bill Monday which would require police to tell the FAA how they would “minimize the collection and retention of data unrelated to the investigation of a crime,” among other restrictions. Republican lawmakers have introduced similar legislation.

The sheriff’s office had planned to test drones on a movie set in Downey designed to look like a suburban street, but the FAA would not allow them to fly so close to other commercial air traffic. FAA officials also rejected a plan to fly unmanned planes over the Port of Long Beach to see whether they could duck under the morning fog layer to track small boats that might smuggle drugs or attack a ship.

Police and firefighters found the smaller drone, the Wasp, manufactured by Monrovia, California-based AeroVironment, was simple to unpack and launch, but winds easily buffeted the aircraft, shaking the camera. The small screens used to monitor the video from the drones are also an issue as makes it difficult to spot small targets.

 

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