People attending outdoor parties or barbecues in New York City this weekend might come across an unexpected addition to their gatherings: a police surveillance drone. In response to concerns about large gatherings, including private events, during Labor Day weekend, the New York City Police Department intends to test unmanned aircraft, as announced by officials on Thursday.
In a press conference, Kaz Daughtry, the assistant NYPC Commissioner, said, “If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party.”
The plan’s announcement faced swift criticism from advocates of privacy and civil liberties, who raised concerns about whether the use of drones in this manner contravened existing laws governing police surveillance.
“It’s a troubling announcement and it flies in the face of the POST Act,” remarked Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist associated with the New York Civil Liberties Union. The POST Act, a city law passed in 2020, mandates transparency from the NYPD regarding their surveillance methods. Schwarz continued, “Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario.”
The Growing Role of Drones in New York City Law Enforcement
The decision was made public during a security briefing that specifically addressed J’ouvert. This annual Caribbean festival commemorates the end of slavery and draws thousands of participants, along with a significant police presence, to the streets of Brooklyn. Daughtry, the spokesperson, stated that the drones would be deployed to respond to both “non-priority and priority calls” outside the parade route.
Like other urban centres, New York City increasingly incorporates drones into its law enforcement efforts. According to records maintained by the city, the police department has utilized drones for matters related to public safety and emergencies on 124 occasions this year. This marks a significant increase compared to just four instances in the entirety of 2022. Drones were observed in action earlier this year when a parking garage collapsed and during an event that descended into chaos among teenagers.
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has expressed his desire to see the police force fully embrace drones’ “limitless” potential. He cited Israel’s utilization of this technology as a model after his recent visit to the country.
However, as drone technology becomes more prevalent, privacy advocates argue that regulations have not kept pace, leaving the door open to intrusive surveillance that would be considered illegal if carried out by a human police officer.
Privacy Concerns and Lack of Transparency in Drone Surveillance
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), expressed one of the primary concerns regarding the rapid deployment of aerial surveillance systems: the lack of sufficient safeguards against the potential use of these cameras in our private spaces, including our backyards and even our bedrooms. Unfortunately, the NYPD did not respond to an email seeking further details about its drone policies.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams provided a link to new guidelines that streamline the process for private drone operators to fly within the city. However, these guidelines do not address whether the NYPD has established specific drone surveillance policies.
Approximately 1,400 police departments nationwide employ drones in various capacities, as outlined in a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report. Under federal regulations, their operation typically involves remaining within the operator’s line of sight, although numerous departments have sought exemptions from this rule. The report foresees a substantial increase in drone usage within police departments, describing it as “poised to explode.”
Cahn, a privacy advocate, emphasizes the need for increased transparency from city officials regarding law enforcement’s current utilization of drones. Furthermore, he urges the establishment of clear guidelines to prevent future surveillance overreach. Cahn said, “Clearly, flying a drone over a backyard barbecue is a step too far for many New Yorkers.”