Police use of drones should not run rampant over privacy

Bills in the Legislature would rewrite the rules on how police use drones for surveillance. Lawmakers should tread carefully before making changes.

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 Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members with a ShadowHawk drone in 2011.

Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members with a ShadowHawk drone in 2011.

Lance Bertolino, Vanguard Defense Industries/AP

It’s often a challenge to figure out how to use new technology to benefit police without infringing on individuals’ privacy.

Bills now in the state Senate and state House are raising that issue once again by seeking to rewrite the rules on how police can use drones for surveillance.

In 2014, police and other stakeholders sat down and agreed on a bill to regulate police use of drones. But now, there is a push to rewrite it to give police the ability to fly drones over crowds to see if anyone appears to be a danger to others who have assembled. The bills would also make a number of other changes to the original law. The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police calls it a necessary “modernization.”

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Highland Park Police Chief Louis Jogmen says he requested permission to use a drone to monitor the crowd at Highland Park’s July 4 parade, but his application was rejected. Seven people were killed and 83 others were wounded by the gunfire that erupted that day from a rooftop. Whether a drone would have prevented that tragedy, no one knows.

Under existing law, police need a warrant for a drone unless there is a high risk of terrorism or loss of life, or if they are searching for a missing person or taking crime scene photos. To change that standard requires careful discussion. Police ought not gather video evidence of every individual attending public or private events, without a solid argument that there is a potential risk of harm.

Over time, police have added one technological tool after another to help them do their jobs, and much of it has been effective. Radar guns, for example, make it easier to record who is speeding and by how much. Adding computers to police cars made police more efficient. But other technology sought by police raises privacy questions. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court said police can’t slap a tracking device on someone’s car unless they get a warrant from a judge. In 2014, the court said police without a warrant can’t demand that individuals hand over their cellphones, partly because the phones contain so much personal information.

Yet other tracking devices such as surveillance cameras and automated license plate readers have proliferated without much court oversight. The unregulated use of drones should not follow that pattern, especially because they can be equipped with video recording devices or even facial recognition technology, which could help authorities keep tabs on who attends protests or otherwise engages in their right to peaceably assemble. That could have a chilling effect.

We get that some police feel frustrated when they aren’t permitted to fly drones, even as the Legislature never got around to putting similar rules in place for businesses and private individuals who use the technology. Elsewhere, an ever-greater number of police departments operate continuous drone surveillance or to respond to 911 calls, using federal waivers to avoid the rule that a drone must always be in an operator’s line of sight. But that’s not a reason to weaken privacy protections without careful forethought.

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Historically, police have adopted one technological development after another in hopes that the latest breakthrough will substantially reduce crime. But crime levels remain much higher than anyone wants to see, even as many people worry how much they are surveilled as they go about their ordinary business.

The Legislature seems likely to take up this issue in this session, and yes, helping police do their jobs is always a good idea. But lawmakers should be careful to maintain a proper balance with privacy rights.

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