SPY IN THE SKY: NYPD will use surveillance drones to monitor private Labor Day parties this weekend

If you thought your backyard Labor Day party was going to be a private gathering, think again if you live in New York City. The NYPD has announced that it intends to use drones to investigate complaints about large gatherings such as private events over the weekend.

In a press conference, NYPD Assistant Commissioner Kaz Daughtry explained: “If a caller states there’s a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we’re going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party.”

The idea is to send drones over people’s yards to check out barbecues and other parties that neighbors have complained about to determine whether it is worth sending officers in. Daughtry said it is a way to use their resources more efficiently.

The comments were made at a press conference about safety measures for the J’Ouvert festival, a Caribbean festival in Brooklyn that marks the end of slavery and is known for rowdy behavior, and the West Indian American Day parade.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell added: “Now for anyone who thinks they’re gonna come into this community this weekend with bad intentions, we all here stand together and we say not this weekend, nor any other weekends,” implying that the use of drones in this manner will continue beyond the holiday weekend. He noted that drones are capable of responding to calls faster than patrol cars, particularly during crowded events.

Privacy advocates are worried about NYPD’s increasing use of surveillance drones

The move is naturally raising a lot of privacy concerns, and some civil liberties and privacy advocates have pointed out that it may be a violation of police surveillance laws such as the POST Act.

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New York Civil Liberties Union Privacy and Technology Strategist Daniel Schwarz said: “It’s a troubling announcement and it flies in the face of the POST Act. Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario.”

Under the city’s POST Act, the NYPD is required to publish any new methods it introduces for employing surveillance technology 90 days in advance to allow for a period of public comments; they have not done so in this case.

In a 2021 document the department published outlining its use of drones, it suggested their use would be limited to activities such as search and rescue operations, documenting crime scenes, managing incidents involving hazardous materials, and visual assistance in hostage situations. Other scenarios are also listed, but noisy backyard parties is not one of them.

Moreover, the department promised it would not be using drones in “areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without NYPD personnel first obtaining a search warrant that explicitly authorizes the use.”

Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that the NYPD has invested tens of thousands of dollars in drone technology and is increasingly employing it for public safety. So far this year, they have deployed drones for emergency or public safety issues 124 times, which marks a big rise over the four instances recorded last year.

Mayor Eric Adams, who was previously a police captain, has said he would like the department to take advantage of drones’ “endless” potential. He has said that he would like them to follow the example of Israel, where he observed extensive use of drone technology on a recent visit.

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Right now, around 1,400 police departments in the U.S. are using drones for some purposes, and a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union predicted that drone use is “poised to explode” in police departments.

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