The Sheriff’s Office of Montgomery County, Texas has received an Unmanned Aerial System to assist deputies in fighting crime. The ShadowHawk helicopter operates using a laptop computer and can be deployed from a police SUV. Civil libertarians are expressing privacy concerns over planned use of the so-called drones for civilian law-enforcement purposes.
Montgomery County purchased the drone in October 2011, with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security Grant. The funding also included training of several deputies already on staff with the Sheriff’s office.
According to Vanguard Defense Industry, the company that built the drone, the system is intended to assist deputies in first-responder situations, which include high-risk warrant searches; search-and-rescue operations; surveillance of suspects’ residences and vehicles; and natural disaster damage and HAZMAT assessments. The company has also supplied aerial assets to the U.S. military.
The persistent surveillance the drone can provide has critics questioning the possibility of privacy violations.
“Government surveillance always raises important questions about privacy that should be addressed,” said Daniel Castro, senior analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan research and educational institute that promotes public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity.
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the use of drones by public law enforcement is not necessary to guarantee public safety.
“Drones take the place of good old-fashioned police work, allow for overly pervasive surveillance, and are an example of how technology is outstripping our laws,” said Burke. “The result is that Americans’ right to privacy is being trampled on.”
Money Saving Cited
Castro agrees important questions include whether this surveillance is legal and necessary. However, he added, “To the extent that UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are used to supplement or replace legal forms of police surveillance, we should adopt innovations that save money and allow government to operate more efficiently,” he said.
“If using a UAV, instead of an alternative like a manned helicopter, allows the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office to cut its budget, save taxpayer money, and keep officers out of harm’s way, then they should proceed,” he added.
Burke recommends specific guidelines for use of UAVs. “Just as we need to regulate regular video surveillance, we need to develop rules, limits, and regulations on aerial surveillance in order to preserve the privacy Americans have always expected and enjoyed,” she said.
Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.