The Dallas Police Department is under intense scrutiny after a security breach allowed over 600 hours of aerial surveillance video to be published on a privacy activist website – footage from helicopters that quickly led many suspicious observers turn their gazes toward drones.
The transparency activist group Distributed Denial of Secrets uploaded what is listed as 1.9 terabytes of aerial surveillance video on Friday. The site describes the content as “over 600 hours of aerial surveillance footage taken by police helicopters in and around Dallas, TX and Atlanta, GA” using onboard tech Distributed Denial of Secrets has called “military-grade.” Yet while the leaked videos with software-generated data enhancement were described as taken by police choppers, the wary looks those generated were immediately shifted drones.
“Police drones have gotten a lot of attention lately, because they represent a new generation of aerial vehicles capable of particularly stealthy surveillance and new types of behavior, including flying indoors,” noted Wired, which first broke the story. “Such broad use of helicopter surveillance augments privacy advocates’ concerns about drones. UAVs are much cheaper and easier to purchase and operate than helicopters and can still be outfitted with an extensive array of sensors.”
Indeed, the spreading use of drones by police forces for a wide range of purposes appeared to motivate their inclusion in most commentary and coverage of the Dallas helicopter video breach. That attention even led Dallas Police Sgt. Ross Stinson to take a pause in responding to the hubbub created by that leak to detail the department’s use of, thus far, entirely non-implicated drones.
In doing so, Stinson said the force employs five FAA-certified pilots who respect federal guidelines prohibiting beyond visual line of sight operation, flight above people, or exceeding altitudes of 400 feet. He also noted drones aren’t used to establish probable cause for making arrests, or for mass surveillance. Meanwhile, reports say Texas law permits UAV to record video only during police searches using active warrants, felony crimes underway, and in life-and-death situations.
By contrast, helicopters are deployed when observing wide areas from higher perspectives – which seemed to be the case in much of the leaked video – or in high-risk situations involving a dangerous suspect on the run.
The scrutiny generated by last week’s breach was accentuated in it following the loss of 22 terabytes in April as the Dallas police department migrated data to a new IT system. About 14 terabytes of that was eventually recovered. The department says it is still trying to identify who leaked the Distributed Denial of Secrets footage, but even if that culprit is unmasked, the force will have a hard time shaking its new reputation of sloppiness with sensitive information it collects.
Pity the poor drone in the fallout. Video recorded by the helicopters of people unloading groceries in their driveway, or relaxing in their back yard have raised concerns of privacy activists about how UAVs – which are both cheaper to buy and operate, and proliferating in police forces around the world – may now be similarly used, or could be in the future. Though technological coups like the 28x zoom on DJI’s new Mavic 3 may thrill drone pilots and photography buffs, the thought of such powerful eyes in the sky alarms people already concerned about how deeply cops – or anyone else – can gaze into private lives.
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