What you need to know about police drone surveillance at protests against police brutality

Technology writer Faine Greenwood has a great piece in Slate about the expansion of police drone surveillance fleets. While there are still many, many reasons to worry about abuses of drone technology and mass surveillance in general, Greenwood takes a look at the legal, technical, and practical limitations of these policing methods. Greenwood essentially argues that, as much as American police officers love to think of themselves as special military tactical forces (often treating normal-ass citizens like enemy combatants), they're really just cosplaying, and their use of drones is part of that:

Unlike a Predator—which is capable of staying aloft for more than a day—these small drones usually have short battery lives, from as little as 16 minutes, when carrying a very heavy camera, to 35 minutes when carrying a lighter sensor. (Drone evasion tip: If you think you're being followed, duck under a shelter or a convenient tree. You can probably wait the drone's battery out.)

Police drone users are largely not exempt from the same rules that other drone users must abide by, which include restrictions on flight over people, at night, and beyond the pilot's "visual line of sight."


While a police drone can certainly chase someone for a bit, that doesn't mean police can readily use drone-collected imagery to identify who that person is. In my research for this piece, I couldn't find a single example of U.S. law enforcement using facial recognition technology and drone imagery to identify someone in the real world. This almost certainly isn't because police don't want to, or because they've been legally barred from doing so. It's because accurately recognizing individual people from aerial drone imagery is really, really hard.

It's a short article, crammed with links and details that are both informative, and strangely (surprisingly) comforting in their way. This doesn't mean you should be ecstatic about the presence of police surveillance if and when you're out there protesting against state-sponsored police actions that are objectively abusive; in fact, as Greenwood notes, you should probably still try to avoid them when possible. But you might not have to be as worried as you would be if you saw a thousand-pound military drone coming your way.

Honestly, the subhed from the article is its most crucial takeaway: "Sometimes it matters less if you're being surveilled than if you feel like you are."

Can a Police Drone Recognize Your Face? [Faine Greenwood / Slate]

Image: Sgt. Lucas Hopkins (Public Domain)