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Drones, in the eyes of idealistic law enforcement agencies, are like futuristic Supermen. They fly where no one else can and use infrared and video cameras to track criminals. It’s all seemingly very useful for departments with little manpower and a small pool of resources. But for advocates of privacy, drones conjure a dystopic image of government and law enforcement agencies mining personal data and images from innocent, unsuspecting citizens.

Since the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) banned commercial drone use in 2007, the Defense Department and Customs and Border Protection are the few federal agencies permitted by the FAA to fly Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) within the country’s borders. But in 2015, the FAA will be required to open U.S. skies to UAS from public and private industries. And since that’s less than a year away, now is the time to discuss the limits of drone usage.

The arguments for drone usage in crime prevention and apprehension are many. They’re unmanned and remote-controlled, diminishing risk of injury or death for would-be pilots. They’re maneuverable, quiet and cost-effective, in comparison to other currently used aerial vehicles.

They can also be used to detect people illegally crossing borders. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates Predator B, an unmanned aircraft system for purposes of “intercept(ing) potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.”

Phoenix, AZ sheriff, Joe Arpaio, wants a fleet of drone models with cameras and infrared capabilities (each priced between $5,000 and $20,000). Since his city is only 70 miles from the Southwest border, he’d look to drones to monitor drug peddling. His first locale—prisons, where there have been cases of people throwing drugs over the fence.

Then there’s the very practical application of employing drones to do the legwork in areas that are hard to reach or just too dangerous for enforcement personnel. Besides searching for missing persons, the drones could use 3-D imagery to reconstruct crime and accident scenes. This would prevent officials from wasting time and money on shutting down major roads to take photos after an accident. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson wants to employ drones to go after suspects on the run. “This is a way we can monitor the individual, back off, not chase him at high speeds and when it’s safe for the officers and safe for the community, move in and make an arrest,” Dotson said.

Especially for rural counties with a sparse but widespread population, drones can cover a lot of ground. That’s why the FAA has granted a special permit for the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department and the University of North Dakota to fly drones for training officers in 16 counties in the state. “Without the UAS, we would have had to slow search this entire field, exposing officers to potential danger,” said Tim Schuh, a Grand Forks police officer. “Here, we confine him to a small area, now we can approach a small area with less officers, with less exposure.”

The UAS aren’t very advanced (Schuh says their capabilities are no better than gadgets you’d find at Best Buy), but they do offer video and infrared camera functionality to track suspects. North Dakota’s drone technology was useful enough to catch farmer, Rodney Brossart, who is the first American to be arrested and sentenced to serve time in prison because of assistance by a Predator drone. You’d think such a milestone would involve a violent crime or terrorist suspect. Actually Brossart’s wrongdoing was that he failed to return three cows that had strayed from a neighboring property.

While Brossart’s crime was nothing to write home about, the subsequent chaos that ensued is what justified the drone deployment. After Brossart refused to return the cows, a SWAT team was called in for his arrest, and a 16-hour, armed standoff followed. The SWAT team then called in a Predator drone (on loan from the CBP), which located Brossart and his three sons on the property.

Brossart’s attorney, Bruce Quick, tried to have the case dismissed on grounds that the drone had been used without a warrant. (In fact, Quick quipped that the drone constituted “guerrilla-like police tactics.”) That argument didn’t fly with the jury. The district judge upheld the use of drones, citing no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle. On Jan. 14, Brossart was found guilty of terrorizing police (though he was acquitted of theft and criminal mischief).

Late last year, the city of Oakland, CA held a City Council meeting to vote on approving the Domain Awareness Center, a surveillance hub that would gather live feeds from mixed media. For a city with some of the country’s highest violent crime rates, the amalgamation of data could mean a greater breadth of surveillance in high-crime areas to apprehend and respond to criminal activity. The sheriff wants drones to circle over murder hot spots.

In a very ideal scenario of data collection, here’s how it would work: data from sensors (cameras, drones, gunshot detectors and license-plate readers) would be collected from thousands of spots in the city. Data analysts would then scan data in real-time to locate felons or provide reports to first responders.

But all that takes time and money. Public agencies are strapped as it is. In the viewpoint of watchdog groups, what precautions exist if — God forbid — the data center was breached? And who can saddle the cost of manpower and machinery to create these surveillance hubs? A 2012 bipartisan Senate investigation looked into dozens of “fusion centers” that gathered and shared intelligence from local, state and federal authorities. The results were that the centers gathered information that was inconsistent, muddled, and rarely timely. The Department of Homeland Security couldn’t even verify how much it had spent on these fusion centers. It was in the ballpark of $289 million and $1.4 billion — a rather significant discrepancy when Oakland’s surveillance center would have an annual operating budget of $1.25 million.

At its most ideal (at least, for law enforcement), drones gather valuable data that can be centralized and shared efficiently among local and federal agencies. At its most ineffectual, drones create a glut of useless information, and probably invades our privacy in the process. If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, it doesn’t help to keep adding piles of straw.

While law enforcement agencies are excited by the possibilities of UAS deployment in fighting and preventing crime, unmanned aerial vehicles call into question the limits of surveillance. Police officers like McDaniel argue that UAS are an extension of the aerial technology already being used by law enforcement. Fixed cameras and helicopters allow police to monitor citizens without a search warrant — why would drones be any different?

“This is merely a more cost-effective manner of using air resources. It’s nothing more than what’s already available,” said Randy McDaniel, Chief Deputy in Montgomery County, TX.

The question of drone deployment puts privacy advocates at odds with crime investigations. Civil liberties groups are concerned that litigation regarding drones’ controlled usage is a slippery slope. While law enforcement can restrict drone usage for special circumstances, say for monitoring those “who are reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal activity.” But then who qualifies as a “reasonable suspect?”

And what happens, asks criminal law expert Laurie Levenson, when police capture evidence of unrelated criminal activity while on a rescue mission? “If you say we’re going to use it for a manhunt, what do you call a manhunt? If you say you want to use it to find missing persons, well, how far can you go with that?”

The American Civil Liberties Union wants to limit UAS usage to a few necessary objectives: to prevent suspects from escaping by monitoring the area they are occupying, locating missing people, and “averting imminent harm to life or property.” Aside from these cases (which are still vague), a warrant should be issued.

Invasion of privacy is a valid concern, but it’s not a convincing argument in our data-driven U.S. economy that mines personal information from credit card transactions, social media accounts, Internet searches, and phone calls. Since drones can’t legally be deployed by law enforcement until next year, now’s the time for discussion. Civil liberties advocates and law enforcement agencies must come to very definite terms on the boundaries of privacy and surveillance, or else we’re all going to have to stop skinny-dipping in our backyard pools.

Image via Wikimedia.