What do you say to a drone that makes an arrest?
“Book him, Predator?”
This was no joke for a North Dakota farmer who has the dubious honor of being the first American sentenced to prison with the assistance of a Predator drone. Rodney Brossart was sentenced to three years in prison, of which all but six months was suspended, for a June 2011 incident in which police attempted to arrest him over his failure to return three cows from a neighboring farm that had strayed on to his property.
An armed standoff between Brossart, his three sons and a SWAT team then ensued on Brossart’s property, which ended with Brossart being arrested, and then his sons being located by a border-surveillance Predator borrowed from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), which enabled local police to safely apprehend them, according tolocal newspapers.
A federal judge rejected a motion by Brossart’s attorney to dismiss the case on the ground that the drone surveillance was conducted without a warrant. On January 14, a jury found Brossart guilty of terrorizing police, though he was acquitted of theft and criminal mischief. Brossart’s sons pled guilty to charges of menacing law enforcement officers, and were sentenced to a year of probation.
Brossart won’t be the last person convicted with the help of a drone as law enforcement deploys more of them. What is worrisome is that drones designed to protect American borders are being used to conduct surveillance on Americans themselves. Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, found that CBP Predator drones flew 700 missions between 2010 and 2012 for other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police departments. CBP Predators were equipped with Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), developed by the military to detect insurgents in Afghanistan.
Yet for all the sinister mystique of drones, and the uncomfortable feeling that being shadowed by a drone might create (many people in the Middle East feel your pain), the drones themselves are not the real issue. Had a manned police helicopter with a pilot at the controls helped to apprehend Brossart, the outcome would have been the same. Indeed, the question of whether aerial surveillance requires a warrant is ambiguous, with some court rulings – including a 1986 Supreme Court decision – allowing warrantless surveillance, while other rulings have found it to be unconstitutional.
There was a time when aerial surveillance was so expensive that privacy was a minor issue. But now drones are relatively cheap and can be equipped with sophisticated sensors, so they can vacuum up large amounts of camera imagery and other data, in the same way that advances in computers and communications enable the NSA to collect huge amounts of data from telephones and the Internet. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, it is not clear what police are doing with the data.
So we could face a future where the skies are criss-crossed by police drones tracking suspected criminals, and in the process, spying on the rest of us. Which almost makes the rest of us suspected criminals.