New Dauphin County drone flies, raises privacy concerns for ACLU


Dauphin County has unveiled its newest crime-fighting tool: a $15,000, six-propellor drone.

It has a lot more features than toy versions, including thermal imaging cameras that allow it to be effective at night as well as GPS.

Since April, it’s been used in 13 investigations from river searches to armed standoffs, even helping at fires.

“Our real concern started out for the safety of our own employees and safety of others in neighboring houses where an operation is going on, to protect law enforcement, to have an eye in the sky,” Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste said.

But with that much technology and capability, what does it mean for the privacy of the average citizen?

“This is not going to be used in any way for spying operations or surveillance operations,” Haste said. “It’s not going to be sent out there just to keep an eye on people.”

“That needs to be in writing,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The county needs to be transparent about how they’re going to use this. The people of Dauphin County need some assurance that this technology will not be used for mass surveillance.”

Hoover wants the county to expand their drone policy, which right now, states the following:

“Dauphin County follows FAA commercial regulations for commercial drone use, which include notifying airports close to the flight area, only flying it in line-of-sight and notifying the FAA before every mission, using the drone’s registration number.

The county’s operators also log at least four hours of training every 60 days to maintain their FAA license, do a safety check of every area in which they fly, ensure the drone’s software is updated and check with to make sure there are no flight restrictions in their area of operation.”

Hoover says that’s a good start but more concrete guidelines are needed.

“We need to have some assurances from government officials in writing, in a way that’s transparent, that the technology won’t be abused,” Hoover said. “It’s a small aircraft with a camera that can fly over the county at any time.”

The drone is a shared resource used by multiple agencies. Haste says video stays with whoever requested use of the drone, just like a glove, weapon, or DNA sample would at a crime scene.

“They would have custody of that as they would any other evidence, it’ll be treated like any other evidence,” Haste said. “There’s nothing to be fearful of unless you’re the bad guy.”

Dauphin County is among the first areas in Pennsylvania to have a drone, and it plans to share with surrounding counties through its crisis response team.

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