BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Heads up, park cruisers. The police department may soon be operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) “as a law enforcement tool” in New York City, giving that agency the capability to monitor activities in city parks, on streets, and in other public areas from the air.
In January, Gay City News made a Freedom of Information request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking “any application or applications made by the New York City Police Department or any other New York City agency to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle in the New York City area.”
In its response, the FAA reported that it had not received any such applications, but it released a December 13, 2010 email to the FAA from a police department detective who wanted to know “who has ‘Certificates of Authority’ to fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the U.S.”
Counterterrorism unit told Federal Aviation Authority cops in “basic stages of investigating” use
The detective’s name was blacked out, but he was identified as part of the NYPD Counterterrorism Division in his email. He wrote, “Currently, we are in the basic stages of investigating the possible use of UAV’s as a law enforcement tool.”
According to the FAA, 266 certificates of authority have been issued to public agencies to operate UAVs, or drones, in US airspace as of July 26. These agencies include local law enforcement, the Pentagon, US Customs and Border Protection, state universities, and other government entities.
The UAVs are used to fight wildfires, study environmental damage, guard the US borders, and develop more and better UAVs. One police department, the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida, is known to have a certificate. In published reports, that department has said it uses a small 18-pound UAV to monitor police operations.
UAVs can transmit and store live video and sound, so police could watch activities, legal and illegal, happening in public and listen to people talking in public. Some UAVs, which can be very small and quiet, can hover. Potentially, a UAV could sit outside a window and eavesdrop on a conversation or shoot video of the interior.
A concern for civil libertarians is that deploying UAVs represents yet another expansion of police surveillance power, a power that some believe the New York Police Department (NYPD) has abused.
“The NYPD must disclose immediately its plans, if any, for beginning unmanned drone surveillance in New York City,” said Udi Ofer, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “Unfortunately, the NYPD has a long and infamous history of engaging in unchecked surveillance of lawful activity. This dates back all the way to the mid-20th century, when the NYPD spied on and infiltrated political groups in New York City.”
William Dobbs, a longtime gay activist, agreed, seeing the UAV technology as a potential attack on privacy.
“Whenever technology enables privacy to be eroded there ought to be public discussion by law enforcement and others to get the issues on the table,” Dobbs said. “There is a lot of potential for abuse and a big threat to individual privacy, including who you might associate with or cruise.”
Since September 11, 2001, police have increased their surveillance capabilities. The NYPD’s so-called “Ring of Steel” is a network of 1,800 video cameras currently in Lower and Midtown Manhattan that is expected to grow to 3,000. There is no evidence that those cameras have resulted in reductions in terrorist or even criminal activities, though video images have helped solve crimes.
The NYPD did not respond to an email seeking comment.