American Reason: Game of drones

American Reason
Justice demands that the state proves an individual guilty of a crime before it punishes them, and these cameras just don’t do that.

In response to a citizen-led initiative, the Iowa City City Council temporarily banned the use of certain surveillance technologies such as traffic cameras, license plate readers and drones for traffic and parking enforcement. These sorts of tools possess capabilities far beyond the imagination of the writers of the constitution, so how do we ensure the protection of our immutable rights in the face of modern policing capabilities?

Vik Patel: Passing this ban is good law, but not because it puts restrictions on drone technology that has been used immorally abroad. It’s because using automated or unmanned technologies like red light cameras, license plate readers and possibly drones to issue citations violates our right to confront our accusers. If your citation is generated by an automated system, then there’s no operator or technician to question in furtherance of your defense. If a camera is temporarily nudged or simply malfunctions and takes a picture of the wrong car, what accountability is there in court and who can we cross-examine? Even with well-proven technologies like DNA testing there’s an individual who we can question about how the testing directly relates to the case and what procedures were followed.

Now, even though I support the proposed restrictions as written, I’m against what many headlines purported these restrictions to be: a wholesale ban on drones (KWWL: “Ban drones? Iowa City may be one of the first cities to do so”). Drones have been used in unconscionable ways; however, police forces will find drones to be an extremely effective tool from both an intelligence gathering and a monetary standpoint. As a result, the will to use drones would eventually overwhelm any ban. If we want to ensure our privacy we need to develop regulations that are inspired by our historic protections but can also be applied to a wide set of surveillance technologies, real or theoretical.

Matt Sowada: Yeah, those license plate readers and red light cameras seem flawed to me at a very basic, functional level. Without some kind of facial recognition, the system is guaranteed to issue tickets to innocent people. I drive other people’s cars with some frequency, for example as a designated driver. If I roll through a red light in someone else’s car I should be ticketed, not the person to whom the car is registered. Although I’m sure the majority of people caught by an automated system would be guilty, for now there are no ethical substitutes for human police officers when enforcing traffic laws like this. Justice demands that the state proves an individual guilty of a crime before it punishes them, and these cameras just don’t do that.

I also concur with you about the drone ban. It’s nice to see society attempting to initiate a discussion on how to use a technological genie responsibly rather than trying to cram her back inside after prematurely rubbing the bottle. That being said, I agree we should put this bill into proper perspective: All it can really do is give us a chance to get our bearings and decide how we are going to deal with the use of drones at every level of governance.

As you pointed out, this technology is simply too cost effective to outright reject for long. I think the question here is one of invasiveness. The police are allowed to look for crimes; it’s not an unconstitutional violation of your right to privacy if a policeman sees you throwing up a walking taco on the ped mall at three in the morning. It’s not really a “search” if you’re publicly engaging in behaviors that strongly suggest you’ve committed a crime. Unless these drones can see through ceilings or something like that, I don’t see any inherent ethical problems with the police using them.

VP: I think I’m going to go one step beyond you. From a legal standpoint we have no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ while in public, walking tacos or no. However, we don’t expect to be tracked continuously in public without some sort of prior justification. Up until now this protection hasn’t necessarily come from the Constitution or any other legal framework, but instead from the immense resources necessary to implement such a society-wide tracking program. Drones and cameras combined with some pretty sophisticated software could make such a tracking system cheap and easy.

In order to prevent the creation of such a tracking system, we need to refine our conception of ‘privacy’ in public. Even in public I think we should have the expectation of a certain level of anonymity. The governmental use of public tracking or identification systems should only be allowed after one has been witnessed exhibiting some sort of suspicious behavior or with some sort of prior approval like a warrant. For drones this would mean that police could use them to track a suspect but not to capture all of the actions of every person in public all the time. Matt, do you think we could pull off ‘privacy’ in public?

MS: People seem to initially react to this privacy stuff at a pretty instinctual level (at least I do), so I think it would be possible to get the citizenry behind a reasonable expectation of public anonymity. I agree with you that the ethical line seems to fall right at the point where the state stops observing “society” when looking for crimes and starts tracking “Matt, writer for Little Village” in any long-term way. I think an ethical use of this technology would be, for example, a traffic drone alerting patrol officers to a particular car that’s speeding, allowing the officer to intercept the driver and issue a citation. Crime committed, justice served. I’d be more troubled by the use of this technology to develop a general “driving profile” of a citizen. I don’t care if I’m attending Move On meetings, Tea Party meetings or a religious service at my local mosque; so long as I’m not trespassing I’m free to associate with whomever I want and the state should have to obtain a warrant to automatically collect that information.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m.