The New York City Police Department (NYPD) deployed surveillance drones during this year’s Labor Day weekend to monitor outdoor gatherings, including parties and barbecues, following complaints about large gatherings amidst ongoing concerns about public safety. The decision came to light during a security briefing addressing J’ouvert, an annual Caribbean festival in Brooklyn celebrating the end of slavery.
Assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry stated during a press conference on Thursday that the drones would be deployed in response to both non-priority and priority calls. He emphasized that they would be utilized to assess situations flagged through non-emergency channels, such as 311 calls reporting large crowds or parties. Daughtry added, “We will have our drone team out there, starting tonight, all the way into Monday morning.”
However, the drones sparked criticism from privacy and civil liberties advocates, who have raised concerns about the potential violation of existing laws on police surveillance. Daniel Schwarz, a privacy and technology strategist from the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed his reservations, referring to the 2020 POST Act, which requires the NYPD to disclose its surveillance tactics. Schwarz remarked, “Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi-inspired scenario.”
New York City, like many other metropolitan areas, has seen a significant increase in the use of drones for policing purposes. According to city data, the NYPD has employed drones 124 times this year, a stark contrast to the four instances in the entirety of 2022.
Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat and former police captain, has been an advocate for embracing the potential of drone technology. He cited Israel’s use of drones as a model during his recent visit to the country. Nevertheless, privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the lack of regulatory measures keeping pace with technological advancements, potentially leading to intrusive surveillance practices that might be deemed illegal if conducted by human police officers.
JUST IN: New York City will be flying drones above people’s backyards to spy on them this Labor Day weekend.
Try that in a small town…
During a press conference, assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry announced New York City would be “utilizing their assets” to “check on”… pic.twitter.com/pRzk5fjKMM
— Collin Rugg (@CollinRugg) August 31, 2023
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, cautioned against the rush to deploy aerial surveillance without clear protections in place. He stated, “One of the biggest concerns with the rush to roll out new forms of aerial surveillance is how few protections we have against seeing these cameras aimed at our backyards or even our bedrooms.”
In response, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams shared guidelines that facilitate private drone operation within the city but did not address any specific policies for drone surveillance by the police department.
Nationwide, approximately 1,400 police departments are utilizing drones in various capacities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. While federal regulations generally restrict unmanned aircraft to flying within the operator’s line of sight, many police departments have requested exemptions, leading the ACLU to anticipate a significant expansion in the use of drones by law enforcement.
As the debate continues, advocates for transparency urge city officials to provide clearer boundaries to prevent potential surveillance overreach. Albert Fox Cahn asserted, “Clearly, flying a drone over a backyard barbecue is a step too far for many New Yorkers.”