BEWARE THE RING OF GYGES: GEORGIA POLICE DRONES AND THEIR POWERS OF INVISIBILITY

By Joshua Brownlee

Police for Duluth and Gwinnett have drones and they’re going to use them. According to Channel 2 and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Duluth gained approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in January 2017 and Gwinnett Police Department received approval in August of 2016. http://www.ajc.com/news/local/duluth-police-approved-use-drones/h38HKObeG9jiPCRJSN2k6L/

Duluth is planning on having a drone officer on duty every shift. The department plans to use the drones for missing person’s investigations and criminal investigation. One officer said on slow days they will use the drones to fly over apartment complexes and parking lots to look for suspicious activity. The officer goes on to say “we’re not here to look in anyone’s windows or anything.” Police seem eager to try new technology in the field, and no doubt most officers have good intentions. The problem with police drones, as with all law enforcement tools, lies in accountability and limitations.

Let’s be clear about the capabilities of these machines:

  • They have infrared cameras and night vision. They can see you at night and you can’t see them. Remember this the next time you’re doing something at night in your backyard: peeing on your tree, getting naked in your hot tub, being romantic with your spouse outside, or whatever it is you do in the dark. The point is, normal people do private stuff all the time in their backyard (especially at night) because we don’t think people can see. Now you need to think twice before being silly on your own property because some police officer may be zooming in for a closer look and you wouldn’t even know.
  • These drones have cameras that can zoom in from a distance to get incredible detail of their targets. Still not bothered? Do you have a daughter? Does she take showers? Are there windows in your bathroom? If you answered yes to these questions you need to take this conversation seriously. Still not convinced? Google “Georgia police officer accused of sex crimes”. Most officers are decent people, but law enforcement like every profession has some bad apples. That is why we need oversight and regulation.
  • They can record at the operator’s discretion. If you’re accused, you need to hope they record the exculpatory evidence as well as the incriminating evidence.
  • GPS tracking. Law enforcement drones are equipped with GPS tracking (think before you shoot one down because they know its last position). More troubling is the ability to get around law enforcement restrictions on tracking individuals for long periods of time. See United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct 945 (2012). This is a blurry area of the law. Police can’t put tracking devices on your car for long periods, but does that apply to drones following you and your car for a few days? This issue is going to come up sooner or later. And the case is going to have huge ramifications on the Fourth Amendment.
  • Drones can be equipped with wifi interception and possibly stingray devices (machines that imitate cell towers and hijack your phone from your cell phone provider’s tower). There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on what these drones can be equipped with under current Georgia Law. Can drones in Georgia be equipped with lethal/nonlethal armaments? Again, before you brush that off remember what happened in Dallas. See: NPR story http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/08/485262777/for-the-first-time-police-used-a-bomb-robot-to-kill. Police used a drone designed to defuse bombs to kill a shooting suspect trapped in a parking lot. Regardless of what you think about the shooter, a line was crossed that day. Local law enforcement “droned” a citizen without a warrant. Maybe they needed too, maybe not. The point is Georgia needs strict standards and restrictions on what police drones can and can’t do before we encounter those situations.

We do well to remember the Greek fable of Gyges. A shepherd named Gyges finds a magic ring that lets him become invisible. Unlike the noble Hobbits in Lord of the Rings, Gyges uses the ring to kill the king, steal the king’s wife, and become king himself. The Greek ring doesn’t have inherently evil powers, it just lets a person act without being seen and without consequences. Police are humans not Gods (or Hobbits), they are susceptible to temptations and eventually an officer will succumb to them. Police shouldn’t have endless discretion and good faith with flying drones to follow citizens with robots, spy on our families, or intercept communications . The Georgia Legislature seems to agree, last year they attempted to pass HB 779 which stated:

A BILL to be entitled an Act to amend Title 16 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to crimes and offenses, so as to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems and images captured by such systems; to provide for definitions; to provide for exceptions; to provide for penalties and a civil right of action; to provide for venue; to amend Code Section 27-3-151 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to activity prohibited in the taking of wildlife, so as to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems in connection to hunting and fishing; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.

http://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/en-US/Display/20152016/HB/779. Unfortunately, even though HB 779 passed, Governor Deal vetoed HB 779 stating “I believe that Georgia should first allow the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to complete their efforts in creating federal rules and regulations for the use of drones.” https://gov.georgia.gov/press-releases/2016-05-03/deal-issues-2016-veto-statements. While I understand the Governor’s deference to pending Federal regulations, I am confused as to how municipalities can be allowed to continue drone purchases and operations without those very same regulations. Can drones help keep people safer in Georgia? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean drones or their operators get a blank check of power.

Proposal:

We need to encourage the Georgia Legislature to issue a ban on all municipal drones until both Federal and State law sufficiently regulates the use and limitations of police drones.

Find and contact your local representative with the link: http://www.legis.ga.gov/en-US/default.aspx

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