In the wake of tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting, we’ve seen a justification emerge for using drone surveillance of large public events. Most recently we saw drones being used at the 2018 Coachella music festival with very little if any public outcry. However, the use of drones for public protests is also being pursued, which finally has drawn the attention of civil liberties advocates in Chicago.
A new bill introduced by Rahm Emmanuel seeks to amend the privacy guarantees currently afforded under the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act to include political protests as part of their consideration of “large-scale events.” According to Gizmodo, this amendment already has passed the first two stages of approval and is heading for the third soon. The ACLU is also disputing reports by the Illinois government that the ACLU was consulted and that their suggestions were woven into the new bill:
“It is not accurate,” Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU Police Practices Project, tells Gizmodo. “We were willing to have conversations about the use of drones when there was information about a particular criminal target… but we think it’s entirely problematic to put drones over people who are trying to express themselves on the streets of Chicago.”
Of course regular readers might be aware of Chicago’s duplicity in a number of other cases of police administration, which makes this news even more troubling coming from this location.
However, it is the Chicago PD’s ongoing secrecy surrounding its predictive policing program that has the most relevance to their use of drones at political events.
In late 2013 the public was alerted about a “Heat Index” of approximately 400 people who had been identified by a computer algorithm as being future threats to commit violent crime. Without having actually committed a crime, some of those on the list were being visited by Chicago police warning them that they were already being watched.
At issue is the fact that no one knows how the algorithm works, nor has there been sufficient oversight to judge its effectiveness or lawfulness. Moreover, that initial list of 400 has allegedly grown to 5,000. Three journalists subsequently sued the Chicago PD for information that can explain exactly how people are winding up on this secretive list now called the “Strategic Subject List.” However, as Shadow Proofreported, the Chicago PD was less than forthcoming; and, in fact, was defiant about not giving details:
The CPD denied Smith’s request for information on 5,000 individuals and called it “unduly burdensome.” It indicated it would issue an additional response rejecting other parts of the request but Smith never received a further response.
True to form, it appears that the new Chicago bill will also sidestep accepted constitutional protections when conducting drone surveillance.
Crucially, the bill does not require police to obtain warrants or suspect criminal activity before launching drones to surveil public events, opening the door for aerial police presence at potentially any protest or rally.
Moreover, with advancements in facial recognition technology also being incorporated into policing, aerial surveillance of large events is tantamount to a mass “fishing expedition” when put in the hands of a well-established font of corruption like Chicago police. Most troubling, two recommendations made by the ACLU that were expressly ignored were the use of facial recognition and any addition of weapons to these drones:
Under Illinois’ landmark Biometric Information Privacy Act, big tech corporations like Google and Facebook must obtain consent before they collect fingerprints or photos of faces for face-recognition uses. But, as Sheley notes, this regulation is limited only to “private entities,” opening up the possibility for police in Chicago to deploy surveillance drones with face recognition.
“The way it stands under this bill, if it’s passed, there’s a cheap tool to monitor First Amendment activity,” Sheley says “and to collect information about who’s in the crowd and make lists of the people [attending].”
The amendment includes no language barring drones from biometric data collection, nor does it include guidelines on how long such data is stored or who it’s shared with. Most troublingly, Sheley says the amendment opens a loophole that weakens the restrictions on drones equipped with weapons like tear gas or rubber bullets.
“Paragraph 7 is limiting the ban on weapons only to when they’re over large scale event,” she says. “So now there’s an explicit acknowledgment of the weapons. If you go [read] through the rest of the paragraphs, none of them ban it. So now when you read it, it reads as if it’s allowed for these other situations.”
The use of weaponized drones for crowd control already has been approved in countries like India, and certainly is the trend that all law enforcement would embrace (even in the Constitutional Republic) if not met with heavy resistance to the idea.
Perhaps concerned Chicago residents should take notes from activists in Los Angeles who have been engaged in a long-running battle with their own corrupt police department’s suggestion to add drones to their police force.
It’s worth remembering that all of this was considered a conspiracy theory just a decade ago when drone programs in the United States first started being exposed, and now we are at the threshold where fully weaponized surveillance devices could be patrolling over areas protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
How the mighty have fallen…