“This is a clear example of why mass surveillance makes our society less secure, not more secure,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, of the leak of data. “Businesses and governments are terrible at protecting the sensitive data they collect.”
Police drones have received a lot of attention lately, as they represent a new generation of aerial vehicles capable of particularly stealthy surveillance and new types of behavior, including indoor flight. In contrast, law enforcement agencies have used helicopters for aerial surveys and surveillance for decades. But the footage released by DDoSecrets illustrates just how effective helicopter-mounted cameras can be at capturing razor-sharp, detailed video close to the ground. Helicopters can also carry surveillance equipment that is heavier than that which can be attached to basic quadcopters or other types of drones at low cost.
“People think police helicopters are traffic helicopters, but they’re much more than that,” Best wrote of DDoSecrets. “They carry technology that allows the police to monitor people who have no idea they are being watched. It is important that people understand what police technology is already capable of and what it might be capable of soon. There cannot be discussions or informed decisions otherwise.
Such widespread use of helicopter surveillance increases the concerns of privacy advocates about drones. Drones are much cheaper and easier to buy and use than helicopters and can still be fitted with a wide range of sensors.
“Camera and zoom technology is getting cheaper and lighter,” says Matthew Feeney, director of the Cato Institute’s Emerging Technologies Project. “We must always view aerial vehicles like drones as a platform for other surveillance tools, including cameras, stingrays, thermal imaging and facial recognition software.”
In the case of the helicopter video leak, Best notes that much of the footage is time-stamped from 2019 and that retention limits should be a top priority for law enforcement. Similar discussions have taken place about the need for suppression policies when it comes to police force camera footage. It is possible that some of the leaked helicopter images were kept as they are still relevant to active investigation, but many files capture hours in real time and focus on disparate and seemingly unrelated activities, places and people. link.
Privacy advocates are particularly stressing the issues of securing air police surveillance data, as these images could be valuable in several ways for stalkers, attackers looking for blackmail material, groups national or foreign terrorists or those carrying out espionage operations.
Some of the leaked footage of Dallas and Atlanta reflects the types of use you can expect from police helicopters: crowd watching in stadium parking lots on game day, for example, or officers stopping a car. But other scenes in the footage have a more aimless traveling quality.
“I haven’t heard of helicopters specifically being used in this way,” said Greer of Fight for the Future. “It’s absolutely not surprising, but it’s alarming. At least in an urban setting you think of the police helicopters that show up when something specific is going on, but anecdotally you also hear that they are used for intimidation, like flying very low. above neighborhoods where residents are predominantly people of color. “
In Minneapolis, for example, residents have consistently reported heavy traffic of police helicopters above their heads since the protests and riots in the summer of 2020 that followed the death of George Floyd. And while helicopters are familiar technology, their use in law enforcement surveillance comes with longstanding privacy concerns. In 2004, a New York Police Department helicopter monitoring an unauthorized mass evening Manhattan bike ride captured nearly four minutes of night vision footage of a couple having sex on a secluded patio in a penthouse.
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