EDITORIAL: Chicago Police drones at rallies smack of Red Squad snooping

SHARE EDITORIAL: Chicago Police drones at rallies smack of Red Squad snooping

A bill proposed in the Legislature would allow police to use drone surveillance at protests and other large-scale events. Students pictured protested gun violence April 20. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times file

Chicagoans should be able to gather “peaceably” for a public protest or rally without Big Brother watching every move from an eye in the sky — a police drone.

As Illinois law stands now, the police can spy on such events with a drone only if they suspect criminal activity and get a warrant first from a judge. The cops are allowed to blow off the requirement for a warrant only when there is a high risk of terrorism or loss of life, or they are searching for a missing person or taking crime scene photos.


This is a law that makes sense. It strikes a good balance between keeping us safe and respecting our rights. Not for nothing did it draw overwhelming support in the Legislature when it was enacted six years ago.

The Senate approved it 52-1, the House 105-12.

AP file photo

AP file photo

Flash forward to 2018: There’s a strong move afoot to gut the law. A bill in the Legislature would eliminate the requirement that the police obtain a warrant for the drone surveillance of large-scale events. The bill is being pushed by City Hall, and it has momentum in the House. It already has passed in the Senate.

Let’s shoot this one out of the sky. Unwarranted snooping, as any Chicagoan who knows our city’s history can attest, could become a real danger.

The bill says drone use would be “limited to legitimate public safety purposes,” an entirely too vague collection of words. Who decides what’s “legitimate?” We foresee a chilling of your First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

State Sen. Martin Sandoval is chief sponsor of a bill that would allow police to use drone surveillance to monitor protests and other large-scale public and private events. | Seth Perlman/AP file

State Sen. Martin Sandoval is chief sponsor of a bill that would allow police to use drone surveillance to monitor protests and other large-scale public and private events. | Seth Perlman/AP file

Allow us to remind the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Martin Sandoval and Rep. John D’Amico, that Chicago has a nasty reputation when it comes to police snooping. The city still bears the scars of the Chicago Police Department’s notorious Red Squad, which existed for most of the 20th century and ramped up spying in the 1960s and 1970s.

Red Squad targets included people who marched for civil rights or against the Vietnam War, journalists, union members, people who opposed Mayor Richard J. Daley, judges and members of Congress. In 1975, a Cook County grand jury said that Chicago had “all the earmarks of a police state” because of eavesdropping by police spies and other bad conduct.

“This is a city with a history of sending people out to record protesters. Now imagine doing it with facial recognition technology,” says Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Americans need more safeguards against facial recognition technology, not fewer. Images taken by drones could pile up like secret treasure for law enforcement, with a whole lot more images of law-abiders than law-breakers.

John D’Amico | Rich Hein/Sun-Times | <a href="https://youtu.be/tVExXY0gYLU">video</a>

State Rep. John D’Amico is sponsoring proposed changes to the Illinois Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The bill’s proponents say the cops need drones to help police events like Lollapalooza. But if there is a legitimate threat, the current law allows for the necessary exceptions to seeking a warrant first.

“People aren’t thinking all that carefully about it,” state Sen. Daniel Biss said of lawmakers who voted to pass the bill. Biss sponsored the 2013 law that set guidelines for police to use drones.

The proposed changes would give powerful people in law enforcement and city halls the ability to develop a database of every person at a protest, Biss told us. “It’s really, really dangerous,” he added.

Chicago mayoral spokesperson Julienn Kaviar wrote in an email to Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman that “the proposed updates would not change the existing privacy protections and limitations under the current law.”

We couldn’t disagree more. This bill would undercut the law’s important protections for people who want to engage in peaceful protests. It would give cops free rein to take video of every single protester at any kind of large event, public or private.

It would leave law enforcement unchecked. It would tell people who want to use their voices to criticize the president, the mayor, the police or powerful companies that somebody’s watching them — too closely.

Been there and done that. Let’s not do it again.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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