Home Police drone surveillance is on the rise in Californian city, raising privacy concerns

Police drone surveillance is on the rise in Californian city, raising privacy concerns

Police drones are on the rise, operating ten hours a day while surveilling vulnerable communities in parts of California, according to a new report. The Chula Vista Police Department’s (CVPD) surveillance capabilities are said to be part of a national trend that raises significant privacy concerns. The CVPD reportedly operates one of the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs in the U.S. and uses drones not only for emergencies but increasingly for routine surveillance.

According to WIRED and the MIT Technology Review, the Chula Vista police deploy 32 drones every day from four separate sites, making them a common presence in the skies above. The drones, operating between 200 and 400 feet, often go unnoticed by the public, integrating into daily police operations.

Situational awareness has apparently shifted dramatically with the introduction of UAVs. Sergeant Anthony Molina, Public Information Officer for the Chula Vista Police Department previously, told the MIT Technology Review that drones are “like an extension of our patrol officers who are responding to calls.”

Expanding drone operations in Chula Vista

The use of drones by police departments is not new, but the scale and scope of their use are expanding rapidly. Across the United States, over 1,500 police departments have consolidated drones into their operations, mainly for search and rescue missions and crime scene documentation. However, Chula Vista’s use of drones reportedly extends to actively monitoring suspects and responding to routine calls.

In October 2018, Chula Vista began the country’s first Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program. Through this initiative, department teleoperators listen to live 911 calls and make real-time decisions on deploying the city’s expanding fleet of drones. These drones now regularly patrol the skies of Chula Vista, having been dispatched nearly 20,000 times since the program’s inception.

They are generally the first on the scene for various emergencies, including noise complaints, car accidents, overdoses, domestic disputes, and even homicides. However, a WIRED investigation found that about one in ten drone flights recorded on the department’s transparency portal were not linked to a specific 911 call, with 498 of these flights categorized simply as “unknown problem.”

In 2019, Chula Vista then became the first U.S. city to receive a “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a regulatory change that has since spread to 225 other departments. This waiver allows drones to operate beyond the operator’s direct line of sight, to monitor large areas more efficiently.

“This is rapidly escalating,” notes Matt Sloane, founder of Skyfire Consulting, which trains law enforcement in drone operations. “Police departments are steadily growing their budgets for this technology. I think we’ll see autonomous deployment within two to three years.”

Drones focus on vulnerable neighborhoods

Critics argue that this rapid technological advancement comes without sufficient public debate on the implications for privacy. Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and recording equipment can capture intimate details of daily life, often without the knowledge or consent of those being filmed.

“I’m not even advocating that they shouldn’t have this technology. But my concern is that they’ve deployed without any policies and procedures in place,” explains Arturo Castañares, publisher of La Prensa San Diego. Castañares is currently suing the city for greater transparency in the drone program, particularly regarding access to footage captured during these operations.

Privacy advocates are specifically concerned about the potential for drones to be paired with other surveillance technologies, such as license plate readers and extensive camera networks. This could create a pervasive surveillance environment where citizens’ movements are constantly monitored, potentially exacerbating issues of overpolicing in marginalized communities.

Analysis by WIRED revealed that drone deployments in Chula Vista are disproportionately concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, leading to greater surveillance of these communities compared to wealthier areas. The research, which examined nearly 10,000 drone flights, found that residents in lower-income areas were exposed to drone surveillance far more than those in more affluent neighborhoods.

Public response and legal challenges to police drone use

However, in 2022, Chula Vista was surveyed to assess public opinion on its police drone usage. The findings found there was widespread approval of the DFR program, especially among lower-income residents who were more likely to support the initiative.

Despite the overall positive reception, concerns remain. A majority of respondents expressed apprehension that the drones might inadvertently record individuals not involved in crimes, or that such footage could be shared with federal immigration authorities.

WIRED’s investigation also revealed that Chula Vista police have regularly deployed drones in response to hundreds of 911 calls involving relatively minor issues, such as suspicious behavior, loud music, public intoxication, vandalism, and shoplifting.

“Considering how novel and sensitive this technology is, they—and other departments—should be scrupulous in their attention to detail when logging these activities,” said Jay Stanley, author of a 2023 American Civil Liberties Union report on police use of drones.

“CVPD policy prohibits drone operators from intentionally recording or transmitting images of any location where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside private buildings, except where authorized by a warrant issued by a judge or in emergency situations.”

Although CVPD policy states that drone operators take “reasonable precautions” to avoid recording areas where privacy is expected, flight data reveal that police drones frequently fly over backyards and other locations that disturb residents.

The data also indicates that these drones often operate over areas designated by the Department of Homeland Security as “protected areas.” These are places recognized for their sensitivity, where law enforcement activities could hinder access to essential services or disrupt crucial activities. According to the department, such locations include places of worship, playgrounds, schools, mental health care facilities, domestic violence shelters, food banks, and homeless shelters.

As the FAA moves toward further loosening restrictions on drone operations, the challenge now for communities and policymakers will be to balance the benefits of technology with the need to protect civil liberties and ensure equitable treatment under the law.

Featured image: Canva / Ideogram

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Suswati Basu
Tech journalist

Suswati Basu is a multilingual, award-winning editor and the founder of the intersectional literature channel, How To Be Books. She was shortlisted for the Guardian Mary Stott Prize and longlisted for the Guardian International Development Journalism Award. With 18 years of experience in the media industry, Suswati has held significant roles such as head of audience and deputy editor for NationalWorld news, digital editor for Channel 4 News and ITV News. She has also contributed to the Guardian and received training at the BBC As an audience, trends, and SEO specialist, she has participated in panel events alongside Google. Her…

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.