The NYPD will police Labor Day parties with surveillance drones

If there’s a drone flying over your backyard party this Labor Day / J’Ouvert / West Indian Day Parade weekend in New York City, it might be the police — because the NYPD have apparently granted themselves the power to surveil the city that way.

“If a caller states there is a large crowd, a large party in the backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up, go check on the party,” said assistant NYPD commissioner Kaz Daughtry, at a live press conference earlier today.

Lest you think we’re taking that out of context, here’s the full quote I just transcribed:

We’re going to be utilizing technology, we’re going to be utilizing drones for this J’ouvert weekend. The drones are going to be responding to non-priority calls and priority calls, for example if we have any 311 calls on our non-emergency line, where if a caller states there is a large crowd, a large party in the backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up, go check on the party, to make sure if the call is founded or not, and we’ll be able to determine how many resources we need to send to that location for this weekend. We will have our drone team out there, starting tonight, all the way into Monday morning.

It makes a bit of sense when you put it that way? But like the Associated Press reports, this is… rather concerning for privacy and possibly also illegal. New York City’s POST Act requires that the NYPD publish any new way it plans to use new surveillance technology 90 days ahead of time, so the public has time to comment. It has not done so.

And while the NYPD did publish a document about how it uses drones back in 2021, it suggested back then that drones would only be used for:

search and rescue operations, documentation of collisions and crimes scenes, evidence searches at large inaccessible scenes, hazardous material incidents, monitoring vehicular traffic and pedestrian congestion at large scale events, visual assistance at hostage/barricaded suspect situations, rooftop security, observations at shooting or large scale events, public safety, emergency, and other situations with the approval of the Chief of Department

“Nosy neighbors annoyed by backyard parties” is not on the list.

Police also promised in 2021 that drones would not be used “in areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without NYPD personnel first obtaining a search warrant that explicitly authorizes the use.” I am not a lawyer, but a quick search suggests that New York state residents have at least some expectation of privacy in their own backyard.

It’s possible the NYPD is exploiting a loophole in the POST Act, where the agency can decide a new tool is an “enhancement” to an existing tech policy, like we discussed the last time the NYPD stretched the drone rules with “remote-piloted public messaging capabilities.” But it’s supposed to add them to the document when it does so. I’m not seeing that update.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently warned of “an explosion in law enforcement use of drones.” The NYPD began acquiring drones in 2018, and flew them over the New Year’s Eve celebration that year. Illinois recently let cops start flying drones over public events, while also addressing some concerns over drone weaponization and facial recognition.

Police departments are also embracing other forms of robots: this year, the NYPD brought back its Digidog four-legged robot, which it claims will only be used during life-threatening situations. NYPD does describe the Digidog in its POST Act documents.

San Francisco has even been debating whether to allow police robots to kill dangerous suspects. While the option was halted, the SFPD has suggested it would resubmit its proposal.

If you do get a police drone flyover, the NYPD should theoretically delete the recording within 30 days. You can request a recording under the New York State Freedom of Information Law.

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Sean Hollister