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Seattle Police Want More Drones, Even While Two Sit Unused 144

Posted by timothy
from the how-to-stop-those-punks-on-capitol-hill dept.
v3rgEz writes "The Seattle Police Department is seeking to buy more unmanned aerial vehicles (a.k.a. drones) even as the two it currently owns site warehoused until the city develops a policy for their use, documents released as part of the EFF and MuckRock's Drone Census show. More frightening than the $150,000 price tag? The fact that the drone vendors market the fact that these lease agreements do 'not require voter approval.'" Does your city or town use drones?
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Seattle Police Want More Drones, Even While Two Sit Unused

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  • Helicopters (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan East (318230) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:02PM (#41637463) Homepage Journal

    I'm curious why people see this as so much worse than the police helicopters that have been in use for decades. Is it because they cost less money, and thus can be operated more frequently? Or because people associate them with the military?

  • Makes no sense (Score:2, Insightful)

    by asmkm22 (1902712) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:03PM (#41637467)

    I can see quite a bit of value for the military use of drones. They put fewer pilots at risk, and it's probably cheaper to train a drone pilot than the a "real" pilot, although I could be wrong.

    Using drones by the state department or law enforcement, however, makes less sense. They aren't designed to displace, say, helicopter pilots, and I doubt they'll be doing missile strikes any time soon, so the only purpose they serve is yet another way around those pesky privacy laws.

  • Drones (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:04PM (#41637493)

    Well, police departments have started stocking up on all kinds of military and paramilitary gear ever since the federal government started giving away excess or "out of warranty" military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. I mean, Texas recently took delivery of a tank. Cost? Gas. And there's pics on the internet of someone being pulled over for speeding by a giant tank.

    On one hand, that's recycling and reusing, which is a sound financial principle that reduces operating costs. Given our massive debt load, this kind of thinking should be encouraged. On the other hand, there are disturbing civil rights implications when the police start amassing large quantities of military gear. It's like the old saying "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." We're seeing increased use of SWAT teams, no-knock search warrants, and violence by our police against the civilian population that simply wasn't present 10 or 15 years ago. I can't help but wonder if it's not just a little because they're being handed military gear by the truckload -- there's no incentive to look for less violent solutions, and that bullets cost less than tazer cartridges.

    It's not that civilian law enforcement has access to, or owns, drones, or even that the military is practically giving them away that concerns me... but that there's not much incentive for less-than-lethal weapondry when letal weapons cost less (if anything). It has always cost more to protect something than destroy it. But the police are supposed to be tasked with preserving life -- taking it is a last resort. But when the only tools they're given are all made with the idea of being used against our enemies instead of our peers, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the user's thinking adapts to the tool... not the other way around.

  • Re:Helicopters (Score:4, Insightful)

    by asmkm22 (1902712) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:06PM (#41637505)

    Flimsy as it is, one of the more reliable defenses against privacy invasion has always been the cost and difficulty of wide-scale monitoring. So unless you are actually targeted by the police for some reason, it's pretty unlikely your actions are at all monitored. Also, there is something a little creepy about having drones flying around overhead keeping tabs on a city...

  • Re:Makes no sense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:25PM (#41637679)

    I can see quite a bit of value for the military use of drones. They put fewer pilots at risk, and it's probably cheaper to train a drone pilot than the a "real" pilot, although I could be wrong.

    Of course, they are trading "fewer pilots at risk" with "more people on the ground at risk". A helicopter is extremely expensive to own and operate and has a pilot on board that cares a lot about keeping himself alive (thus keeping the helicopter in the air). If they have a fleet of 6 drones that are much cheaper to operate (thus are more heavily used than helicopters), there's a higher risk that one of those drones will malfunction and crash to the ground, possibly on someone's house or car. Granted a "small" drone will cause less damage than a larger helicopter, but that's not going to make the headlines much better when a drone crashes into a crowded football stadium.

    In a military operation killing a few civilians on the bad guys side is treated as a cost of war -- but what's the reaction going to be when a drone chasing a car thief crashes into a back yard birthday party?

  • Re:Helicopters (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sarten-X (1102295) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:30PM (#41637721) Homepage

    For the same reason people complain about GPS tracking on cars: they want to punish someone else for their perceived damage.

    People have some expectation of privacy in everything they do, with thresholds varying from "I don't want anyone to know anything about me" to "just don't put anything inside me except dinner". Note that this expectation is completely unrelated to how private a particular situation really is - a big open window in full view of the street isn't really reasonably private, but people still complain if someone looks in.

    When someone's expectation of privacy is broken, they get offended, and like all offended people with over-inflated senses of entitlement, they want someone else to be just as offended as they are, if not more. If someone's going to learn what grocery store they shop at, it had better involve a person standing on the sidewalk for hours handing out surveys. If the police are going to watch their movements, it should involve an officer spending their whole day in a car with a logbook, rather than ten minutes with a computer. If their neighborhood is going to be subject to aerial recording, it should cost an exorbitant amount to hire a skilled helicopter pilot, ground crew, and airport space.

    This isn't about being actually worse or even being more frequent. It's about Americans being offended and not having a built-in mechanism to force someone else to share in their frustration.

    By some definitions, that alone means these automated systems are unjust. After all "justice" is simply a feeling that my pain has returned to whomever caused it (in a nebulous, unquantifiable way).

  • Re:Makes no sense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:35PM (#41637763) Homepage

    Which is precisely why the FAA hasn't approved the drones flying over populated areas. FTFA the original FAA plan required the Seattle PD to stay away from pretty much everything. The idea seemed to be that the department needed to show that they were interested and capable of using these potentially dangerous devices.

    All well and good, but then the Seattle PD just dropped everything (according to the publicly available documents) and the program is sitting there, essentially collecting rust (it is Seattle after all) all the while asking for two new drones.

    Seems like the Seattle PD started out OK (testing program, limited objectives) but now has backed off, shut up and wants to spend more. Perhaps their taking cues from the TSA.

  • by isomer1 (749303) on Friday October 12, 2012 @07:47PM (#41637879)
    We, as concerned budget conscious citizens, point out that these drones can do the work of 10 ordinary beat officers (10,15 whatever the number is irrelevant). This, we continue, allows the county/city/state to reduce the number of officers on payroll. Then we sit back and watch the police union take care of problem for us.
  • Re:Helicopters (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 12, 2012 @08:16PM (#41638151)

    That's stupid.

    People are upset by them because they are designed to be constantly in the air. If they were used for the same purposes as police helicopters you would only need 1 or 2. You only need more if you intend on having them constantly deployed. Knowing our local police that means they'll start using them to cite traffic violations like speeding, which most Americans don't consider a crime.

    In Virginia they still haven't answered whether or not the drones will be armed. There are serious implications if they are.

    But either way, constantly being watched by flying vehicles is an invasion of privacy. I have a reasonable expectation that if I go out for a drive, walk, to dinner etc, that the government is not spying on me constantly. What is the end game? To gather lots of small things together to make it seem like I did a crime? There is no reason to be running drones constantly. Crime rates are down across the country.

  • Re:Helicopters (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 12, 2012 @08:33PM (#41638233)

    Police helicopters generally do not fly on a patrol, they fly on demand. They cost too much per hour to just fly around. Plus they are maintenance intensive, even if the money was there to burn up for fuel, they require a lot of short interval inspections which puts the bird out of action (the required work may take no more than a half day or so, but that's a half day minimum of unavailability). So when they are up there, they are going somewhere with something to do, not just fly. Usually to circle a perp or eyeball a freeway pileup or be one of the chase birds for a nut driver.

    Helicopters are very noisy and in no way can perform quiet surveillance. You can load them up with cameras up the wazoo, but given that they are tethered to general aviation airports, most of the observation would be to and from corridors to said airports.

    Now take drones. These are far smaller, can operate longer, and capable of being quiet enough that at mid-VFR altitudes (assuming the FAA plays ball) that they are likely to be inaudible against the usual city noise. Now you have a practical spy platform that looks into people's yards (Homeowners and rental tenants do have an expectation of privacy from observation where it's not normally humanly practical). They can be flown more frequently since the maintenance requirements are different. With a batch of them at a PD's disposal, they could be scheduled that one or two could be always up in the air in a major city 24/7. Given that they could potentially be flown so low that they can get angle shots into buildings through windows, it's a far more effective spy platform (However if it can be flown that low, it's a flight hazard now. Normally the FAA would putting the kabosh on this. However with the current atmosphere of police state mentality, the FAA will likely to roll over for law enforcement "needs").

    One of two things would kill drone programs. The less certain path is that they greatly underestimated the costs of using drones, however if Police State Bob wants something, money is often magically found. The more certain path is when drones get hacked in flight and creatively dealt with - deliberately crashed, taken elsewhere, or they are flown as nuisances. If we get drone collisions with pedestrians or bicyclists or people in convertibles (I doubt the drones would be big enough and hefty enough to pose a certain lethal risk against people in public transportation or newer enclosed cars), when people are seriously hurt or killed - drone programs are likely to be killed right then and there. A helicopter can fail in flight (and have), but cannot be remotely hacked.

    If the military who are operating very expensive, high performance large drones equipped with weaponry and then operating these drones with pathetic security in mind (unencrypted video, easily spoofed control systems, seriously?), like having a drone taken over and landed in Iran - you can bet civilian police models who do not have the luxury of encrypted satellite links will be pwn3d all over creation.

    I do not trust the police. Any bit of technology that hands over an advantage to the police will be abused, any legal ruling that provides an inch for law enforcement will be stretched a mile wide You can expect these will be armed, with non-lethal stuff at first, but certainly will be abused. Remember how tasers were a non-lethal alternative to guns? Generally police still use guns in most situations that tasers were tasked for, but use tasers are convenient "compliance" devices, inexpensive torture devices.

    Let's stop giving the police more toys to abuse the public with.

  • Re:Makes no sense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mr. Freeman (933986) on Friday October 12, 2012 @09:51PM (#41638647)
    > The main uses are for aerial pictures and search and rescue.

    Yes, and the secondary uses are illegal surveillance.
  • by WarSpiteX (98591) on Friday October 12, 2012 @11:13PM (#41639019) Homepage

    I have only flown through Seattle and never really spent more than about 6 hours in the city proper (outside the airport), yet I was creeped out by their police as early as 2000 - long before the stories of abuse came out. Here's why:

    I'm coming off my flight in Seattle for the first time and waiting for another, when all of a sudden, interrupting the normal announcements, the speakers across the airport are blaring out "DO NOT WORRY, CITIZENS! THE POLICE AND FIRE DEPARTMENTS ARE HERE TO ASSIST YOU." This was over a year before 9/11 so it never occurred to me that some sort of terrorist attack had happened, and as far as I knew, the police in Seattle had done nothing notable to rile up the citizenry. Yet the fact that they felt the need to reassure me every 10 minutes (for 3 hours...) that they're here to help me was the weirdest thing ever.

    That is all.

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