It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…one of the 19 drones registered by the NYPD? Earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found 530 drones actively registered to government agencies in New York state via public records request; 327 were tied to law enforcement agencies. New York State police’s fleet is the largest, boasting 126 registered drones. Yet prior to this request, there was little understanding of how many populated the Empire State skies.
“Unregulated use of drones threatens New Yorkers’ privacy and safety, further creating a society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “Without public oversight and legislation to curtail drone use, the threat of constant police surveillance by drones equipped with invasive technologies will become our new normal.”
The data was obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration by Daniel Schwarz, NYCLU’s senior tech and privacy strategist. The agency mandates registration for all unmanned aircraft weighing over 0.55 pounds.
“Across the board, we’re talking about military type technology, even if it is geared towards the consumer market,” said Schwarz. “The vendors are constantly trying to pander towards military clients as well and try to push AI capabilities that would make sense in the field, in zones of war.”
He also mentions the prevalence of DJI Technology, the industry’s largest manufacturer worldwide, which makes 86% of the registered government agency drones statewide. Last month, the Chinese company was placed on a U.S. Defense Department blacklist. This pattern rings true in New York City—a majority of the NYPD’s fleet is composed of DJI drones. Only three are from other companies—two are Ghost 60 models from American manufacturer UAV Solutions. The department also registered a solo Skydio drone, which boasts “frightening capabilities” including thermal body heat cameras, 3D mapping and autonomous flights, according to the NYCLU report.
Then there’s concerns of government drone footage’s potential use in facial recognition systems—Schwarz says the technology can be racially biased and produces higher error rates for Black and brown people. Additionally, he mentions the deployment of NYPD drones outside of Black activist Derrick Ingram’s apartment.
The report also mentions a proposed state legislature bill (S675/A3311) penned by Assembly Member Ron Kim and State Sen. Jessica Ramos banning drone surveillance during protests and mandating warrants in police protests before use. Co-sponsors include the 71th District’s Al Taylor.
“The legislation [would] essentially set those guardrails and make sure that we’re future proofing those guardrails and making sure that down the road we’re not [faced] with some civil rights and civil liberties dangers,” said Schwarz. “Because those robots and drones are allowing for more and more payloads for other devices to be included for better spying capabilities.
“People won’t necessarily know that they’re being surveilled, because they can operate from such far distances, operate with great lenses, sophisticated machine learning in AI capabilities for video analytics. And it has two sides, where on the one hand, it can happen in complete secrecy. And it can also chill free speech when people are actually aware of the drones flying over their heads and people will not feel safe to actually protest and make their voices heard.”
The NYPD called the bill an unreasonable overregulation on law enforcement drones, citing the existing warrant requirements for drone usage mandated by the 4th Amendment.
“This bill would expand the requirement to obtain a search warrant when a drone is used for all law enforcement purposes, not just investigations,” said a police spokesperson over email. “This would include hostage situations, evidence collection in public locations, and search and rescue operations. Waiting for a search warrant would negatively impact our ability to respond to serious incidents.”
The department adds police drones have only been used a recorded 20 times this year in the first three quarters outside of training and testing.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1