by Anthony W. Accurso
It’s not just hobbyists who are exploiting the near-endless potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”). Law enforcement from all over the country—most especially federal agencies—are using, or making plans to use, drones to conduct surveillance and subdue suspects.
Americans first became widely aware of drone use by the government in the form of Predator UAVs deployed for intelligence and offensive purposes, almost exclusively in the Middle East against “terrorists.”
But drone technology has come a long way in the last two decades, with drones getting smaller and being able to carry more added weight than before.
These advances have allowed them to become the perfect platform upon which law enforcement builds its surveillance programs. Drones can carry sensors for GPS, radar, lidar, range-finding, magnetic fields, chemical and biological sniffers, and, of course, increasingly high-resolution cameras. Federal agencies often attach cell-site simulators to drones—calling them “dirtboxes” in this use case—to collect digital and cellular data from all unsuspecting citizens in a particular area, not just suspects.
Further electronics and software innovations have made these sensors more efficient and capable than ever. Predator drones operated by Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) are known to use a system called Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (“VADER”). VADER implements synthetic aperture radar, a tech trick that uses an aircraft’s motion to minimize the size of the antenna needed to create a high-res map of an area. By comparing these maps moment-by-moment, it creates a “real-time ground moving target indicator” through “detecting Doppler shift that moving objects produce in radar return signals.” Like the apex predator in Jurassic Park, these Predators rely on movement to “see.”
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems has been operating a similar program, under contract by the Baltimore Police Department (“BPD”), that uses software to construct a real-time image from photos captured by aircraft-mounted cameras. BPD can then track the (outdoor) movement of every pedestrian or vehicle in a 32-square-mile area. This is ostensibly to track fleeing criminals or generate leads after a crime has occurred.
While only sensors have been attached to domestic drones so far, the addition of weapons systems appears to be coming. In 2015, North Dakota passed a law allowing police to equip drones with tear gas and rubber bullets. Also, documents uncovered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show the CBP has suggested adding “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” people to their drones.
Laws have always lagged behind the constant march of technology, but the rapid development of drones and drone-mounted surveillance systems is set to pilot America into an omnipresent surveillance state where any and all outdoor activity—and maybe indoor ones if we get wall or roof penetrating sensors—is persistently monitored by police.
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