“If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care if the police are watching me?” We regularly get this question when plans arise for new surveillance cameras in public areas, or government develops enhanced ability to monitor our most private online communications (not only e-mails, but financial and health information and much more). Technology nearly always outstrips our efforts to regulate it. It is vital to our democracy that we have policies in place and oversight of government agencies’ surveillance of citizens.
It is widely agreed that surveillance devices do not deter criminals and terrorists. Studies have shown that video surveillance can be effective in solving crimes, but it is largely ineffective in preventing violent crimes. While surveillance can help law enforcement, blanket and suspicionless monitoring grows the intelligence haystack without making the needle any easier to find.
There’s no question that in a serious crime, where there is probable cause and police are searching for suspects, surveillance tools could appropriately be deployed to solve a crime. Allowing permanent warrantless surveillance of the mass of citizens who are law-abiding is another matter. It is a basic tenet of our society that we do not watch people just in case they do something wrong.
That is why the ACLU of South Carolina welcomes legislative proposals to provide oversight on the use of unmanned surveillance vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, by law enforcement agencies.
H. 3514 would put in place a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of drone technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society,” in which everyone’s movements are monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by authorities. The bill would allow law enforcement to use drones only where a court has agreed that there are grounds to believe they will collect evidence relating to a specific instance of criminal wrongdoing, or in emergencies. Requiring a neutral arbiter to sign off on drone use can reassure the public that this new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with our values.
H. 3514 would also require local governing bodies’ approval before law enforcement agencies acquire drones in order to ensure that communities have the opportunity to choose take advantage of drones’ positive capabilities — for example, finding missing hikers or fighting forest fires — and so that when law enforcement agencies do use drones, they do so with their communities’ buy-in and support.
Both H. 3514 and S. 395 would prohibit weaponization of drones, which is important, because an officer on the ground has a very different perception of when it is necessary to use force and what force is appropriate than an officer observing the scene on a screen from a distance might.
H. 3514 would exempt public universities from the warrant requirement so that drones can be used for research and academic purposes, allowing South Carolina to partake in the cutting edge drone research and development field while still protecting individuals’ privacy.
And H. 3514 contains robust reporting requirements so that legislators can evaluate how the legislation works in practice, identify any abuses, and have the evidence necessary to update the law down the line should modifications become necessary.
We hope that our law enforcement officials will welcome the creation of privacy protocols and oversight, to ensure public confidence that civil liberties are being protected. Use of surveillance tools should respect the balance between our core values of security and privacy.
Security cameras may be appropriate at high-profile public places and events. But, as surveillance technologies get cheaper and more pervasive, we must ensure that we don’t create a society in which all of our actions and public movements are recorded and stored forever, and the government maintains digital dossiers of millions of innocent Americans.
Security and privacy are not a zero-sum game. We now have an opportunity to put in place privacy rules in South Carolina that will get ahead of — or at least keep up with — drone technology.
We welcome our legislators’ efforts.
Victoria Middleton is executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, which is based in Charleston.