Increased reliance on drone technology by police and government agencies in New York State is raising concerns about the potential for abuse through the unregulated use of the devices, including their possible weaponization by police, the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a report issued Monday.
Relying on data obtained under the federal freedom of information act from the Federal Aviation Administration, the report said there were 530 active drone registrations among 85 government agencies in the state, with the largest number in the metropolitan area and among local police departments being registered to the Nassau County Police Department with a total of 33, exceeding the 19 registrations for the NYPD and four in the Suffolk County Police Department.
The largest number of registrations statewide was with the New York State Police which had 126, according to the report titled “Prying Eyes: Government Drone Data Across New York.” Fire, emergency management agencies and utilities also use drones.
“The dangers posed by these incredibly powerful spying devices are hard to overstate, and they’re being used with almost no regulation,” the NYCLU report asserted, adding that New York State should tightly regulate the use of drones by law enforcement. The NYCLU noted that bills were pending in Albany to regulate police use of drones.
Use of drones has increased over the years in both the private and public sectors and is generally regulated in the airspace by the FAA. The issue, according to the NYCLU, is that drones pose privacy concerns.
“Despite this, police departments rarely disclose how or when they are used, what type of information they are collecting, where and for how long the departments store that information, and who has access to it,” the report stated.
“While there is no current evidence that drones operating in New York are armed, many of the drones being deployed by police departments in our state have the capacity to be weaponized and there is currently no law that prevents police departments from doing so,” according to the NYCLU study.
The NYPD has in recent years acknowledged using drones to monitor big event crowds like marathon races, the New Years Eve celebration and searches for crime suspects. In a statement, the NYPD criticized any attempt to restrict police drone use.
The NYPD already has a policy — implemented after public comments — that limits the use of drones to certain serious situations which undeniably advance the public good, the department said in a statement.
As head of the local police department with the largest number of drone registrations, NCPD Commissioner Patrick Ryder wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the NYCLU report.
“The drones used by the Nassau County Police Department are registered and follow FAA guidelines,” said Ryder in a statement. Officials with SCPD did not comment. During the summer, agencies on Long Island used drones to track sharks after a number of attacks were reported to authorities.
Donna Lieberman, executive director at the NYCLU called in a statement for public oversight and legislation to curtail drone use, which she said if allowed to go unchecked would permit police surveillance to go become the norm.
The report noted that legislation pending in Albany would prohibit drone surveillance of protests and other events and activities protected by the First Amendment and require a search warrant before drones are used in police investigations.
But the NYPD said that such legislation would hobble all police drone use and noted that the U.S. Constitution already required a search warrant in many drone applications.