Melanie Balog column: Police drones matter of balancing surveillance and safety

As South Carolina awaits word on whether it will be among six FAA-sanctioned drone testing sites, the question arises: Does surveillance make us safer?

A bill in the S.C. House of Representatives would require law enforcement to obtain warrants before they could deploy drones. Theoretically, that would keep law enforcement from buzzing your neighborhood on a whim.

It's a good idea to try to figure this stuff out ahead of time, said Victoria Middleton, ACLU of South Carolina executive director.

“I think it's really good to raise public awareness. They (drones) really do have potential for good,” Middleton said, adding: “They really do have to be regulated.”

Big Brother or no big deal?

When the Charleston Police Department added more than 30 cameras on the peninsula a couple of years ago, there were similar concerns. The department met with community members and business owners to address concerns, and the ACLU worked with the department on issues like oversight, security and identification.

And Police Chief Greg Mullen said there have been no complaints.

“We've been very open about where we put them,” Mullen said. The cameras have helped catch criminals as well as provide evidence, and they allow officers to shift investigative focus.

They also help address a recurring downtown problem: flooding. The police don't have to guess or send a squad car to a flood-prone area to check the status — they can look at the screen instead.

However, police cameras are in a fixed location, and drones would not be, Middleton said.

They're definitely a giant leap forward from security cameras. 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson told NPR's Marketplace in February that his company's civilian drones are “just camera phones with wings.”

Not everybody feels the same way.

Somebody's watching

As Mullen noted, the Boston bombings are a clear indicator of how much of an asset such surveillance can be.

Go beyond flooding to a major natural disaster and you can see where drones would be really valuable tools.

But there are reasons to be suspicious, or at least cautious, when it comes to new types of surveillance. Mullen says a lot of the fears come from not understanding what the technology is going to do.

But sometimes, the fears turn out to be justified. Google Street View showed us that: The Internet giant's cars driving seemingly benignly through neighborhoods turned out to be not so benignly scraping sensitive data from people's computers.

You know there's a camera at the ATM. You know there are cameras on the peninsula. But with the drones, at least right now, you don't know where they are or when they're watching.

Mullen said if the Legislature says he needs a warrant before sending out a drone, then that's what his department will do, but he's hoping for a more comprehensive, wide-ranging discussion about how best to utilize the technology.

One thing's for sure: No matter how much we value safety, nobody wants to be watched all the time.



Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.

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