Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones,” are being used in a range of industries, including conservation, journalism, archeaology, and policing. (In this paper I will use the word “drone” to apply to unmanned aerial vehicles, excluding unmanned aquatic vehicles and terrestrial robots.) Law enforcement drones have clear benefits: allowing police to more easily find missing persons, suspects, and accident victims, for example. They also allow police to investigate dangerous situations such as bomb threats and toxic spills. Yet without strict controls on their use, drones could present a very serious threat to citizens’ privacy. Regrettably, while the Supreme Court has tackled privacy issues amid the emergence of new technologies, the Court’s rulings on aerial surveillance are not well suited for today, now that police are using drones.
Fortunately, lawmakers at the state and federal levels can implement policies that allow police to take advantage of drones while protecting privacy. These policies should not only address familiar issues associated with searches, such as warrant requirements, but also relatively new concerns involving weaponization, biometric software, and surveillance technology. Such controls and regulations will allow police to do their job and prevent drones from being used as tools for secretive and needlessly intrusive surveillance