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Police chiefs adopt privacy guidelines for unmanned aircraft systems

Unmanned aerial vehicle

One of the largest associations of police executives has voted to adopt guidelines on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, but privacy groups continue to be wary of the technology’s operation by law enforcement.

On Aug. 16, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) adopted unmanned aerial vehicle use guidelines similar to the “code of conduct” for unmanned aerial systems that was issued by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in July. IACP said it is the oldest and largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, with more than 20,000 members in over 100 different countries, with leadership consisting of the operating chief executives of international, federal, state and local agencies.

“Over the past several years, the development of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) have been occurring at an extremely fast pace,” said an IACP statement. “Recently, this technology has been identified as a potentially important tool for public safety. However, as with any new law enforcement technology, there is a need to address various issues concerning its use. One such issue is the deployment of sUAS for legitimate public safety purposes while respecting the privacy of the public,” it said.

“The IACP, through the work of the Aviation Committee, has released Recommended Guidelines for the Use of Unmanned Aircraft to provide agencies with guidance in the development of policies for the use of these important public safety tools,” it said.

AUVSI applauded IACP for adopting guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The guidelines, said AUVSI, provide law enforcement agencies an outline of how to use UAS safely and responsibly, and with respect to individuals’ privacy.

AUVSI’s guidelines include specific steps law enforcement should take to respect the privacy of individuals:

  • Where there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the (unmanned aircraft) will collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing and if the (unmanned aircraft) will intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy, the agency will secure a search warrant prior to conducting the flight. 
  • Unless required as evidence of a crime, as part of an on-going investigation, for training, or required by law, images captured by a UAS should not be retained by the agency.
  • Unless exempt by law, retained images should be open for public inspection.

Privacy groups remain cautious of the unmanned systems and their growing use among law enforcement agencies, however. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has obtained access to the special permits for unmanned systems issued by the Federal Aviation Administration under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The permits detail special how law enforcement and other groups are currently using the technology. The FAA is preparing to allow wider use of unmanned aerial vehicles nationwide in 2015.

An Aug. 16 post on EFF’s Web site notes that in looking through the FAA’s Special Airworthy Certificates (SACs) obtained under its FOIA request, that most drone flights in the U.S. “have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology.” The post said the North Little Rock Police Department wrote in its SAC that its SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.” 

The EFF also quoted the Seattle Police Department’s SAC that said its drone was equipped with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment. The EFF said the Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, said EFF, their drone was to be employed in support of "critical law enforcement operations.”


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