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Proliferation of Police Drones Feeds Big Brother’s Need for Big Data


by Anthony Accurso

A recent article by Nick Mottern on highlights the growing trend of big data collection made possible by tech in policing, specifically the proliferation of drones with cameras.

Julie Weiner was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Yonkers, New York, in early June 2020 when she noticed a drone in the sky, seemingly monitoring the protest. After some digging, she learned the drone was operated by the Yonkers police.

Weiner is concerned that using drones, possibly in connection with other tech, such as facial recognition and predictive policing, “may be a violation of our rights to freely assemble, and to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures.” 

Weiner is right to be concerned. While Yonkers Police Commissioner John Mueller has not put in place any formal policy for managing what is captured by drones or with whom that data is shared, Mueller is also considering purchasing police body cameras and had been favoring those made by Axon Enterprise, Inc. (formerly known as TASER International).

Axon, which is purported to control 80 percent of the police bodycam market, sells other law enforcement services as well. Axon is in partnership with DJI – the manufacturer of the drones used in Yonkers – to provide data capture and warehousing through its back-end database, Drones, body cameras, and cameras attached to Tasers can all be automatically uploaded to under a service contract with Axon with a “$199 do-it-all package.” To be clear, that’s $199 per officer, per month. The cost to Yonkers, with its roughly 600 officers, is about $120,000 per month. 

This may be convenient for police, but it’s costly to citizens, in Yonkers and elsewhere, in terms of money and privacy. First-generation big data policing was limited by the data from each agency being “siloed” and difficult to share with other agencies. But Axon’s is hosted on Microsoft’s immense cloud storage system, Azure, and receives data under contract with police in New York City, Atlanta, Brazil, and Singapore.

Eighteen states have laws requiring police agencies to obtain a warrant before using drone surveillance as of 2019, but there is no such limit on federal agencies. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol was recently found to have been operating a “reaper” drone outfitted with high-tech camera equipment to surveil peaceful protests. It’s not clear what, if anything, is stopping local police from accessing federal drone footage or vice versa on and then using that footage to unlawfully profile, track, or harass lawful protesters.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued just such a warning recently: “New technologies can be used to mobilize and organize peaceful protests, form network and coalitions ... thus driving social change. But, as we have seen, they can be – and are being – used to restrict and infringe on protesters’ rights, to surveil and track them, and invade their privacy.” 



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