Police drones and privacy rights

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

At least 10 Indiana police departments already have their own drones, and more are considering obtaining them. They have the potential to be incredible crime-fighting tools.

The only problem is that it is hard for police to use drones legally in this state. In fact, civilians would probably have an easier time staying within the law while using them.

The Indianapolis Police Department, as one example, wants drones for crowd surveillance at major gatherings downtown, reports The Indianapolis Star. And the Indiana State Police want them to monitor traffic at events such as the state fair.

But both of those uses would be against the law in Indiana.

Indiana is among 18 states, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report, in which a police department needs a warrant to use a drone, except in a few circumstances and in emergency situations.

So unless there were a “reasonable suspicion” that a terrorist event or other crime were about to happen, a police drone couldn’t fly near large gatherings just looking for something bad to happen. They couldn’t even watch for traffic snarls outside of large events.

In setting policy for new technology, legislators always have to balance public safety with privacy rights. In Indiana, lawmakers are clearly erring on the side of privacy. Some might think too little consideration is given for police being able to do their jobs effectively, but it’s hard to argue with a commitment to the Fourth Amendment. Cases coming out of the Supreme Court are beginning to favor more surveillance, and without Indiana’s law, citizens would not be as protected as they might think they are.

Let those who want wider latitude for police make their case to legislators. In the meantime, there are many ways drones can legally be used. They can aid in search and rescue efforts, for example, or help track fugitives on the run. They can map out crime-scene grids, help officers reconstruct major crashes and aid during SWAT situations or natural disasters.

As drone technology advances, police will find more uses for these little flying helpers. But there will also be more ways to intrude on our privacy. Let’s always be aware of what trade-offs we might be asked to make, and thankful that the legislature seems to be paying attention to them.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.