Hennepin County Needs Stricter Drone Policies

On June 15th at 10AM, Hennepin County will be holding a hearing on their updated Drone Polices. As they are currently written, these Drone Policies are do not do enough to protect residents of the county from the potential harms this technology poses.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (Drones) are capable of highly advanced surveillance, with some versions equipped with cameras that can scan entire cities, or alternatively, zoom in and read a milk carton from 60,000 feet.

While we admit that there are many useful and legitimate use cases for the technology, Surveillance Drones raise significant issues for individual privacy and civil liberties. There is a particularly high risk that drones will be used to collect information about individuals not suspected of any crime, or as a way to chill the speech of citizens expressing their first amendment rights to peaceably protest, as was the case when a predator drone was flown over the protests in Minneapolis last summer.

Our chapter does not think the language of the draft does enough to protect citizens impacted by the use of Surveillance Drones. If Hennepin County wishes to enact policies that ensure that the technology is used properly and without harming the citizens, it should tighten the exceptions allowed under 414.4, and in particular parts 5 and 6:

5. to conduct a threat assessment in anticipation of a specific event;
6. to collect information from a public area if there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity;

A plain text reading of these exceptions indicates that they could be used to justify a deployment of drones against otherwise peaceful protesters or demonstrators, subverting the prohibition against such use in state law.

There should additionally be tightening up of the data retention and sharing policies, and language should be added which would prevent incidental data collected by drones from being used as part of an investigation or submitted as evidence to prosecute a crime, unless the drone was deployed specifically for the purpose of gathering that data pursuant to a warrant. There is no need to allow footage gathered from crash scene recreations to be used to issue unrelated parking tickets, nor should drone footage collected as part of a publicity event to be retained for 30 days just so computer vision algorithms can catalog every face, gait, or license plate it spots and save it as meta-data.

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