Drone U Podcast: Why We Need a "Drone Census"

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 7 2013 2:27 PM

Drone U Podcast: Why We Need a "Drone Census"

Every Wednesday on Future Tense, we will highlight a talk from a leading thinker from Drone U speaking on the topic of what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

This week, Drone U features Trevor Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in surveillance, free speech, and government transparency issues. In this episode, Timm focuses on the incentives for the law enforcement use of drones—and points out how little legal protection we currently have from this type of drone use.


Timm explains that as American military engagement abroad winds down, defense contractors that supply drones to foreign conflicts are increasingly looking for domestic markets to absorb their product.  Law enforcement is a prime candidate. In this way, the surveillance use of drones might be “stickier” than expected, leading to a drone market that caters to law enforcement needs over broader commercial purposes. (On the other hand, last week’s Drone U podcast from Mike Toscano suggested that civilian commercial applications, such as agriculture, would outstrip military purposes in the next decade.  Time will tell.)  Timm also echoed a point made by Amie Stepanovich: Drones are a particularly useful platform for law enforcement tools that already exist, like cell phone interception gear, GPS trackers, and WiFi-sniffers.

What troubles Timm is the lack of transparency around this law enforcement use. Thankfully, EFF, in partnership with MuckRock, has led the charge to shed light on domestic drone use, using Freedom of Information Act requests to conduct a “drone census.” EFF also filed suit  against the Department of Homeland Security to learn more about how DHS loans its drones to other law enforcement agencies

But Timm isn’t entirely pessimistic about the prospects of our drone future. He notes that the issue of domestic drones has inspired civil liberties activism unlike any that he has seen.  With increasing mainstream scrutiny of law enforcement—whether it be stop-and-frisk or the excesses of civil asset forfeiture—I suspect that many will continue to keep an eye on police drones.

Join us on Aug. 14 for the next episode from Drone U, featuring Margot Kaminski, Executive Director of the Yale Law School Internet Society Project.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Nabiha Syed is a media lawyer in New York and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project.  She is the co-founder of DroneU.


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