No Oversight: NY Law Enforcement Operating Hundreds of Drones

increasing use of drones owned by New York government agencies, the dangers of militarized drones,
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NEW YORK – Monday, the New York Civil Liberties Union released an exclusive report highlighting the increasing use of drones owned by New York government agencies, the dangers of militarized drones, and the need for legislation to subject drone use to public oversight. Based on data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, “Prying Eyes: Government Drone Data Across New York” provides the most comprehensive picture yet of how many drones are deployed by government agencies in New York.


Key findings include: 

There are 530 active drone registrations by 85 different New York government entities across the state. 
There has been a rapid growth of drone use in New York in recent years. In 2020 alone, 200 government drones were registered. And in just the first six months of 2022, another 79 drones were added.
Most of these drones are operated by law enforcement agencies and made by DJI, a company added to the U.S. government’s economic blacklist for enabling human rights abuses. 
The Capital Region, the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New York City have a particularly high concentration of government drones. 

“Unregulated use of drones threatens New Yorkers’ privacy and safety, further creating a society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Without public oversight and legislation to curtail drone use, the threat of constant police surveillance by drones equipped with invasive technologies will become our new normal.”

While there is no current evidence that drones operating in New York are armed, the report reveals that many of the drones being deployed by police departments in our state are equipped with invasive surveillance technologies and have the capacity to be weaponized. Drones can be equipped with biometric surveillance capabilities, object recognition, thermal imaging, autonomous flying, and even microphones sensitive enough to hear personal conversations. Recently, New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed interest in deploying drones paired with controversial audio recording devices along rooftops.

There is very limited public information about how or when drones are used, what type of information they collect, where that information is stored, and who has access to it. A bill in the state legislature (S675/A3311) would prohibit drone surveillance of protests and other events and activities protected by the First Amendment and require a search warrant before drones are used in police investigations. It would also prohibit drones from using facial recognition software, weapons, or crowd control devices. The legislation would also set rules for public access, retention, and deletion of drone-collected data.

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