You can put aside the conspiracy theories—for now. The Los Angeles Police Department did not use a drone to track down and kill Christopher Dorner, the former cop who’s suspected of killing three people after leaving behind a long, rambling invective accusing his former employer of widespread racism and corruption. While those reports have been proven false, the debate over domestic use of drones has sparked widespread anxiety about how exactly they can be used against people within U.S. borders. And those fears are especially prevalent in communities of color that have long been in the crosshairs of police surveillance.
There’s growing anxiety about the drones, what they do, what parts of the government has them and what kinds of protections we have when they’re flying overhead. The truth is that most of these questions don’t have answers. But there are some things we do know about drones in the U.S.
Experts are quick to point out that in and of themselves, drones are neutral devices; a bunch of wires, metal sheets and whatever else gets soldered together to build a miniature plane. But while few doubt their utility for things like search-and-rescue missions, or for efforts to find alleged shooters, advocates say they’re also ripe for more troubling uses.
“What’s particularly concerning about drones is that they bring all of the surveillance tools that police use into one piece of technology,” says Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which sued the federal government for more information on domestic use of unmanned aerial vehicles. “It changes what law enforcement is capable of.”
As things stand, drones are already equipped with high powered cameras, thermal imaging devices and license plate readers. And officials expect that drone operators will soon have facial recognition or biometric recognition technology at their disposal. But civil liberties advocates warn that current laws don’t suffice to protect communities from abuses of government intrusion.
Even when laws do apply, constraints on law enforcement have a tendency to slacken when communities of color are the subjects of observation. From recent revelations about the NYPD’s vast infrastructure dedicated to surveilling Muslims to the Cointelpro of the 1960’s, the concerns run deep in communities of color.
“Obviously in many civil liberties disputes we see that police tend to pick on communities of color because they think that’s who they have to watch,” said Timm.
And Timm warns that there’s currently no legal firewall stopping the government from equipping drones with rubber bullets, tasers or other so-called “non-lethal weapons” that research suggests get deployed on people of color at higher rates and that mirror other kinds of police violence.
So with all of these questions, what do we know about drones in the United States?
1) They’ll likely be flying near you soon.
A year ago, Congress tucked a small but important provision into the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act that called on the agency to “facilitate and accelerate the adoption” of drones by local police and other agencies by 2015. Domestic drone use is in its infancy, but the FAA predicts that 30,000 drones will fill the nation’s skies in less than two decades with the help of Department of Homeland Security grants.
2) Colleges want to fly them, too.
31 U.S. universities submitted applications for licenses to fly drones in 2012. Most of the schools on the list are public universities.
3) They’re already over the border—and cost a lot.
Border Patrol operates 10 surveillance drones on the southern and northern borders, each at a cost of $18 million. The agency loans the flying machines to other law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement agencies for surrveillance and disaster releif operations.
4) It all started with cattle rustling.
In 2011, a North Dakota sheriff borrowed a Border Patrol drone to spy on a group of three belligerent cow rustlers. The arrests are believed to be the first connected to domestic drone use.
5) There are no-fly zones—sort of.
Earlier this month, Charlottesville, Virginia became the first U.S. city to ban drones. Of course, as the mayor acknowledged to press, federal law trumps that local resolution.