Here Come the Drone Wars in America -- The Public vs. Overzealous Police
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Recently, outgoing director of the FBI Robert Mueller revealed that his agency has used drones to conduct surveillance in the United States. Mueller's casual admission serves as an opportune moment for drone enthusiasts: introducing the FBI's domestic drone programme with nonchalance, he swung wide the door on which drooling police departments have long been banging.
For the past year, law enforcement agencies have tried with varying success to convince their wary constituents that drones are necessary for such innocuous, even beneficent, endeavors as conducting search and rescue operations, detecting forest fires and tracking down wandering Alzheimer patients.
Senator Dianne Feinstein pressed Mueller on the privacy risks drones pose to US citizens, but the FBI director needed only to reassure her that his agency had used drones in a "narrowly focused" way in order to quell any qualms the California Senator and Head of the Senate Intelligence Committee might have had. Hardly a champion of the public's right to privacy, however, Feinstein distinguishes herself as one of the most vocal opponents of transparency as well as a leader of the government's war on whistleblowers.
However, others are not so easily appeased.
"The FBI is in its own ball park in terms of rules and techniques. They really have their own rulebook... But local law enforcement has been secretive and very un-transparent about their desires to use drones so this will give them further ammunition that they don't need guidelines to adopt drones," said Nadia Kayyali, a legal fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, in an interview with me.
"Troubling that Feinstein notes Americans' privacy concerns regarding drones, but the[n] has never seen - or apparently requested - the FBI's privacy limitations that exist to address those concerns," Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations noted on his blog on June 21.
But the notion that simply writing up and codifying a set of regulations for the domestic use of drones would be a silver bullet that adequately addresses privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns is a dubious one: police departments operate with near total impunity and very little transparency. With no accountability, rules have little meaning - as any grieving family member of someone extra-judicially shot and killed by the police will attest.
To shed further light on the deeply flawed mechanics of holding police accountable even to their own regulations, I spoke with Andrea Pritchett. Andrea has been overseeing police conduct in Berkeley, California for 23 years. She helped found Berkeley CopWatch, a grassroots group that monitors the conduct of the police on Berkeley's streets. Every week, the group's members and volunteers of all ages ride through the streets of Berkeley, listening to the police scanner and shadowing the path of the police so they can document their conduct. Sometimes, Andrea and other CopWatch workers traverse the city on foot, getting to know people on the streets, hearing their stories and learning about their interactions with the police.
Speaking at a public forum held last month in Berkeley to discuss the plans of Alameda County Sheriff's Department to acquire a drone, Pritchett said: "It's hard enough watching what police do on the ground, so if it all goes up in the air I don't know what we're going to do".
Pritchett's words bring what has been a largely theoretical conversation about domestic drone oversight into sharp and concrete focus. She has committed much of her life to the hard task of documenting police activities in an effort to hold them to account, and is intimate with the environment of impunity in which Berkeley police operate, their disregard for community concerns and the reticence with which they share information with the public.