We live in a heavily surveilled country. According to a report from late last year, the U.S. has roughly one surveillance camera for every four people. That’s already a startling lack of privacy, but surveillance experts warn Americans living in cities could soon find themselves with essentially no privacy at all. They say we could soon enter a time when drones that were designed for the military are constantly surveilling our cities from above.
Barry Summers, an activist who researches military drone integration, tells the Daily Dot that he started thinking about domestic drone surveillance back in 2012 when the Los Angeles Times did a story on the Pentagon working with the FAA to open U.S. airspace to the drones they were using in the Middle East. He says he found this alarming, and eventually he started looking into what other information he could find out about the plans for these drones. Summers has spent a lot of time researching this topic over the years, and he’s found the companies that manufacture these drones seem to be interested in marketing them for domestic use, and he points to one company in particular: General Atomics.
General Atomics manufactures drones meant for the military, such as the Predator drone most people are familiar with. The company was founded in 1955, and it originally focused on nuclear fusion and fission research. It’s largely been focused on drone manufacturing for the past couple decades through its subsidiary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. It’s not a particularly large company, but it’s had a major impact in the world of military drones.
Summers says General Atomics has been working hard to market their drones to police and emergency responders. He says one model called the SlyGuardian was actually designed with this purpose in mind. This drone can be weaponized for military purposes or outfitted with different kinds of cutting-edge surveillance technology. The SkyGuardian isn’t profoundly different from a Predator drone. And the company admits it: “GA-ASI has developed a variant of the Predator B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) series that meets NATO standards, and in cooperation with the FAA, will subsequently meet airworthiness certification standards domestically and around the world.”
“What’s going on domestically is that the SkyGuardian was developed from the ground up to qualify to operate in civilian airspace,” Summers says. “They’ve been tailoring their development together with the FAA and the FAA test sites, which are all around the country, and several of them have been, over the years, working very closely with General Atomics.”
General Atomics has worked closely with the FAA to make sure the SkyGuardian’s design qualifies it as a drone that can fly in domestic airspace, Summers says, and he says they even have a facility at an FAA test site in North Dakota. He says many former military leaders are currently working at the FAA and overseeing drone integration.
Immigration agencies already use drones for surveillance near the border, but Summers says law enforcement could soon use these drones to constantly surveil American cities. These drones typically fly at around 25,000 feet, but they can fly much lower. They can stay in the air for long periods of time, and they’re equipped with high-resolution cameras that can utilize facial recognition technology, license plate reading technology, infrared to see beyond walls or underground, and more.
“They can essentially create a permanent, high-resolution video record of an entire city from five miles up, and it’s a permanent database that they can go back to and search later,” Summers says. “It’s a permanent record—24/7—of an entire city. The CCTV cameras and doorbell cameras and all of this little piecemeal surveillance—the drone technology is sort of an order of magnitude ahead in that it covers everything.”
General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.
Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), tells the Daily Dot that he finds this idea to be extremely alarming. He says he doesn’t see a good reason for law enforcement to ever need this kind of technology.
“I feel like when I see General Atomics marketing these high-powered drones to domestic law enforcement, it seems like it’s a solution in search of a problem,” Maass says. “I really don’t know that law enforcement has some giant problem that it’d be able to solve with this. It may dazzle them. It may seem novel, but a lot of technology has been marketed at police that’s novel and sparkling but ultimately ineffective.”
There are no records of any police departments purchasing or using these drones, but they could start acquiring them in the not-too-distant future. Maass says that no police department should be able to acquire a drone like this without coming up with a privacy impact assessment, revealing the cost, and going to an elected body and having a public hearing where the elected body gets to decide whether they can have it or not. Then this elected body could determine how they’re allowed to use it if they’re given permission to use them.
If drone use was properly regulated, a police force would ideally have to have a reason to use a drone for surveillance rather than just flying them constantly for the sake of it. A police force could get a warrant to use a drone to surveil a suspected drug cartel property, for example, which would be a much more limited and reasonable mission.
Even if a state or city requires local law enforcement to ask for a warrant before doing drone surveillance, though, there are often ways to get around these regulations. Drone surveillance that was done over George Floyd protests in Minneapolis earlier this year was conducted by U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP). It’s illegal for local law enforcement to do drone surveillance without a warrant in Minnesota, but the law doesn’t apply to federal agencies like CBP, which may have been asked to do the surveillance by local law enforcement. CBP claimed it did the surveillance “at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis.”
“Your regular CCTV camera isn’t pointed into your backyard. They are on street corners, in convenience stores and that sort of thing,” Maass says. “When you have drones like this—particularly ones that can stay in the air for a long period of time and gather high-definition footage of large areas—then it is like someone is spying on your personal space.”
Summers says he worried about how drones constantly surveilling U.S. cities could harm people’s right to protest. He says people might be afraid to go to protests if they know they’re going to be monitored from above from the moment they leave the house to the moment they come home.
“When people realize they’re being watched and everyone they know is being watched, especially when you’re at a protest, do you want that on your record? Maybe you wouldn’t go to the protest,” Summers says. “There will be a gradual sort of discouragement of being able to exercise your free speech. Everyone’s going to know that there’s an eye in the sky watching everything.”
It’s not hard to imagine going to a protest, someone destroying property at that protest, or something else illegal happening, and many people who had nothing to do with it but were in the area being arrested because they were identified by a surveillance drone. There are many ways law enforcement using this technology could go wrong, and there are many ways it could be abused.
“We live in an age where we know that any technology for the government to spy on us that can be abused will be abused,” Summers says. “We just have to assume that, because every one up to now has been abused.”