New Drone Initiative Sparks Debate about Privacy in D.C.

With the launch of a drone police fleet, Washington D.C. comes under concerns over privacy and civil liberties.

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New Drone Initiative Sparks Debate about Privacy in D.C.

With the launch of a drone police fleet, Washington D.C. comes under concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
MPD announces new plan to start using drones. Source: Flickr

Mia Boykin

The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington D.C. has launched a new drone program, raising concerns about privacy for D.C. residents. The program, announced by Mayor Bowser on June 24th, is part of a broader initiative to enhance video surveillance in the district. Some raise concerns about privacy and the impact this may have on protests in the city. 

The new drone program would include five Parrot Anafi drones, each costing $15,000 dollars. Police officials claim the drones will be a tool to improve public safety and is a more efficient use of resources for the department.

The press release stated, “MPD is committed to transparency regarding its use of drones. MPD will provide public notice of drone deployment when feasible and collaborate with community stakeholders to address any concerns. 

The police will primarily use drones for monitoring large public gatherings, not necessarily for patrol. Additionally, the police emphasized that the drones will not use AI or facial recognition, which often mistakes Black individuals especially, and instead will offer police a vantage point of sight. Police officials reassured the press that they focus on protecting the community’s privacy.

However, civil liberties groups expressed concern about the program’s impact on the privacy of residents. Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of DC, voiced her apprehensions to The Washington Post: “We’re not saying that law enforcement should not use technology; we just [believe] that technology should be regulated and have a transparent process.”

The conversation around drones is controversial, especially after a 2021 court ruling decided that an aerial surveillance system in Baltimore, MD was an unconstitutional violation of privacy, as it tracked the residents’ movements. 

Privacy is becoming an increasingly important topic, especially regarding policing, as more and more police departments are using technology to enhance their surveillance. D.C. now joins the 1,500 other police departments nationwide that have begun using drones. This should be especially concerning to Black people who live in the DMV, as police have historically over-surveilled these communities. 

The use of drones has also raised alarms by civil rights activists with concerns about protests, as D.C. is an important spot for all protests across the country. Whether it be protests concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict, the mass protests that occurred in 2020 for the death of George Floyd, or even Pride parades, many worry over how this might suppress the ability to protest. 

Despite assurances from officials, the expansion of surveillance technology in a city with a significant Black and African population raises important questions about privacy, racial profiling, and the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.

As the program rolls out, it will be crucial for community leaders, civil rights organizations, and residents to monitor its implementation and impact, ensuring that the use of this technology does not disproportionately affect Black and African communities, or protests for their causes, in the DMV area. 

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