I have recently learned that a police department in my home state of North Carolina may br using a unmanned aerial vehicle to spy on perfectly legal and low risk public events without cause. Gaston County's Police Department purchased a CyberBUG UAV, an small unarmed spy plane, sometime early this year. The Department claims that it bought the UAV in order to "augment the response and rescue efforts of the Gaston County Police department." But the reality is the police can use the drone for virtually anything they want.
Gaston County assistant police chief Jeff Isenhour on the subject: "A good example would be a large crime scene. Put the CyberBUG up and get views of that crime scene. Tactical operations, where you need to do surveillance around a tactical situation you can put the CyberBUG up. A manned search, put the CyberBUG up and have it out in front of officers for officer safety. As we progress we'll see other needs for it, and utilize it," he said. [source]
Isenhour also said that his officers have been training to fly the UAV for at least 8 months prior, meaning plans were in place to use the spy plane as early as the first quarter of 2005.
The uses he cited sound noble and reasonable, except that's not what it's been used for previously. Homeland Security tasked police in Maryland tested a similar UAV by surveilling a biker gathering on local fairgrounds. In the end, they decided they simply didn't need the expensive device, with price tags around $30,000 per plane.
According to the Charlotte Observer, the Gaston PD plans to use their spy plane for benign operations such as monitoring traffic, searching for drug crops, search and rescue, and gathering logistical information on natural disasters. What worries me is that they also readily admit to wanting to use the UAV for "Observing large crowds at community events." What bothers me is that nobody seems to care about what exactly that means; what events qualify for spying on, and what safeguards exist to protect peoples privacy when dealing with the video taken? I also believe there to be a pertinent question on the legality of searches conducted by the aircraft, which can operate at tree-top level if needed.
Safety Concerns The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is very concerned that the UAV is an unregulated vehicle, and is operating in regulated airspace. They believe that because of its small size, and it's inability to sense and avoid other aircraft, it poses too great a danger to be allowed to operate as-is. According to the AOPA, the FAA initially refused to become involved, believing it lacked jurisdiction over the matter. I sincerely hope I'm not the only person who thinks something must be seriously wrong with the world when a government agency insists it doesn't have authority over something. Though the FAA did finally relent after the complaints reached higher up the food chain, the Gaston Police Department is still not required to follow safety regulations. They are currently following the guidelines voluntarily, but may choose not to do so at any time, for any reason.
The article here verifys my own personal concerns over possible abuse for state-level use of spy planes. "This isn't the first time law enforcement has flown the CyberBUG. The company claims it was used to watch for "unruly behavior" and "alert authorities about accidents" during the 12th Annual Southern Maryland "Blessing of the Bikes" in La Plata."
Is it worth the cost? The price of a single CyberBUG UAV is small compared to the cost of training and employing even a single full-time officer, but there is a world of difference between the capabilities of the two. The only thing a UAV can do is show you whats going on in a certain place at a certain time, assuming weather is good, and there aren't any buildings or trees obscuring the area. That's it. A human being can affect the situation, rather than show you what's going on. There are undoubtedly other places within the police force that could use the money as well.
Precedent The Gaston PD is the first police force on the East Coast to use the CyberBUG UAV, though others may soon follow the same path. The House of Representatives is hearing testimony from police (presumably Gaston County is representing); the Department of Homeland Security and the Bush administration are bothbucking hard for an entire fleet of unmanned drones to scour the Mexican border for illegal immigrants. Their night-sensing capability and range make them ideal for such a task, and private groups are also expressing interest in UAV's for the same reason.
With any new technology and authority comes the potential for abuse. The drive for security and capability must at all times be tempered with careful consideration of the potential aspects, negative as well as positive, that come with any new undertaking. City streets are becoming lined with surveillance cameras and soon may be overflown with unmanned aircraft that can follow you everywhere you go. It would be wise to think long and hard about this while there's still time to insure that the needs of the people in their privacy and liberty are considered equally with the needs of law enforcement.
Once things start rolling, there are not often second chances.