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Curtailing the Unregulated Use of Drones

Strategic Initiatives – Protect Privacy & Autonomy

Curtailing the Unregulated Use of Drones

New York is already an over-surveilled state but new technology employed by both government entities and private companies threatens to erode our right to privacy even further. Police departments across the state use military-grade surveillance equipment to spy on New Yorkers. Invasive technologies such as facial recognition, predictive policing, and cellphone-spying devices are deployed often without the public’s knowledge or consent. New Yorkers are increasingly targeted for their activism, and personal biometric information is collected by law enforcement and housed in databases without substantive oversight. This surveillance free-for-all inevitably has a more damaging impact on communities of color and other populations that already face bias and discrimination.

Technological innovation has always outpaced privacy protections, which is why the NYCLU is perpetually working to expose and curtail excessive use of surveillance. In November, the NYCLU published a comprehensive report, “Prying Eyes: Government Drone Data Across New York State,” based on data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, that paints a disturbing picture of the accelerated use of drones by government agencies. Key findings include:

  • There are 530 active drone registrations by 85 different government entities across the state and most—62 percent—are operated by law enforcement agencies.
  • The vast majority of these drones—86 percent—are made by DJI, a company the U.S. government added to its economic blacklist for allegedly raising national security concerns and enabling human rights abuses.
  • There has been rapid growth in drone use in New York in recent years. In 2020 alone, 200 government drones were registered and in just the first half of 2022, another 79 drones were added. The 2022 state budget includes $20 million for advanced surveillance technologies, including drones, for local law enforcement agencies without limitations and oversight.
  • Drones can be equipped with biometric surveillance capabilities, object recognition, thermal imaging, autonomous flying, and even microphones sensitive enough to hear personal conversations.
  • Many of the drones being deployed by police departments have the capacity to be weaponized.

The dangers posed by these incredibly powerful spying devices cannot be overstated. They’re being used with almost no regulation or public oversight detailing how or when drones are used, what type of information they collect, where that information is stored, and who has access to it. The NYCLU supports the Protect Our Privacy Act (S675/A3311), which would impose limitations on the use of drones for law enforcement purposes; prohibit drone surveillance of protests, demonstrations, concerts, and other activities protected by the First Amendment; and require a search warrant before a drone is used in a police investigation. The proposed bill would also prohibit drones from using facial recognition software, weapons, or crowd-control devices, and would set rules for public access, retention, and deletion of drone-collected data.

The proliferation of drone use endangers New Yorkers’ privacy and safety, further creating a society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities. It is essential that we continue pushing back against these attacks on our civil liberties.

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A November episode of the NYCLU’s Rights This Way podcast focuses on New York’s surveillance state, including the use of facial recognition technology in schools, the  proliferation of police drones, and the dangers of digital dragnet warrants.

Read more about our efforts to protect liberty in the face of technological innovation.