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Know your rights: Drones and your privacy


Matt H. operates a drone for the Chula Vista Police Department in Southern California.

The drone can often arrive on scene quicker than the officers. And it can inform them of the situation as it unfolds in real-time.

Since 2018, the department’s drones have recorded crash scenes, fleeing suspects, and missing people.

Lt. Don Redmond, who heads Chula Vista’s drones says the drones only respond to emergency calls.

Digital evidence is stored for no longer than a year unless it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“Our drones do not have facial recognition,” Redmond says. “They are not armed. They’re only there to get on the scene.”

For example, there was a recent report of a man at a local taco stand waving a dark object that looked like a gun.

From a control room, Matt dispatched a drone from the rooftop of the police department.

About a minute later the drone was at the taco shop.

Matt observed a man wearing a purple polo over a white long-sleeved T-shirt and talking to himself.

He could see the man holding a dark object, but couldn’t say whether it was a real gun or a replica.

Six officers were on their way to the scene.

They had the video feed from the drone transmitted to their smartphones.

Before the officers arrived, Matt saw the man talking to another person.

As the two conversed, the man in the purple polo lifted the dark object in his hand and lit a cigarette with it.

Matt immediately relayed to the officers the potential firearm was likely a novelty lighter.

This situation ended peacefully.

But, can you imagine if six officers arrived without that vital information and the man pointed the replica gun at them?

They would have been justified in using force, but would be ridiculed for shooting an “unarmed” man.

The debate

Police departments across all 50 states have drones.

Police departments argue a drone is no different from a helicopter, and costs less to operate.

The reality is, drones are harder to detect than police helicopters and airplanes.

And while it’s true that some states require law enforcement to have a warrant when using a drone…

The big problem is federal and state laws are lagging on drone use.

But, legal experts predict a police drone case will soon reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

For now, two cases from the 1980s have set a legal precedent.

In a nutshell: The Supreme Court found warrantless surveillance by police from an airplane or helicopter did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

So, whether you think you are being surveilled by a private individual or by a law enforcement agency…

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Document for the FAA: If you find a drone hovering in your yard, immediately start recording it.

Note the exact time and date that you see it.

Get as much information as you can about the make and model and take pictures if you can.

If you see a number written on the side of the drone, write it down.

Both recreational and commercial drones are supposed to be registered.

Most cases of spying don’t fall under drone-specific laws. Instead, they’re under the normal laws and ordinances that prevent stalking.

Which means the same authorities deal with the complaints – whether it’s someone with binoculars or a drone.

You should call the local police and explain the situation.

If the drone is a private citizen they can assist in documentation.

Plus, they may be able to decide if the FAA needs to be contacted.

And if the police are the ones operating the drone, they are still required to follow FAA regulations.

Find the pilot: Drones have short battery life and don’t stick around for long. So, by the time police arrive, the drone could be gone.

People using inexpensive drones usually keep them in sight. The operator wants to keep “eyes on” the drone in case it goes down.

If the drone is hovering over your home you should try to follow it back to its pilot.

Again, it shouldn’t be too far from the operator unless they are using a high-grade drone.

Don’t touch: You cannot shoot a drone out of the sky.

It’s against federal law.

Drones are considered aircraft. And you cannot shoot down an aircraft, period.

In fact, the same law that prevents you from shooting down a 747 protects drones.

Which also means you can’t try to bring the drone down with a laser pen or other methods.

If you’re not allowed to do it to an airplane, you’re not allowed to do it to a drone.

By 2021, it is predicted there will be 4.5 million drones in use by civilians.

Unfortunately, they can be used to invade your privacy.

So, if you see a drone in your yard, immediately start recording and continue to follow the steps above.

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