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Drones above New York 'scary' but inevitable, Mayor Bloomberg says (+video)

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says domestic drones are coming, suggesting they perform the same functions as street cameras. Critics say the aim is to create permanent records.

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The NYCLU estimates there are 2,400 surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone, which combined with the city’s new facial recognition unit, can scan faces in surveillance images or social media and match them against mugshots to hone in on suspects in criminal investigations.

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Depending on the type of technology used, surveillance drones can be equipped with facial recognition software to identify individuals and capture details as minute as license plate numbers and the goings-on in private residences. (Whether they would be legally permitted to do so, of course, is a different matter.)

Surveillance recorded by a city police department would be considered government record and could be used for crowd control, surveillance, law enforcement, and security.

Undoubtedly, privacy laws will need to evolve to address the potential concerns created by drones’ new surveillance capabilities, the NYCLU’s Ms. Lieberman said.

“We need clear rules to ensure that this new technology is used in a responsible manner that safeguards our privacy,” she said. “At bottom, there should be a system of checks and balances to ensure that police do not use drones to perform indiscriminate mass surveillance of New Yorkers, or to compile and maintain permanent records of people’s daily activity.”

Peeping Tom legislation could help guard some privacy, Bloomberg said in his radio address, but more would be needed.

“This is something society has to think about,” he said. “And not by writing a quick piece of legislation. These are long-term serious problems.”

Nonetheless, as Bloomberg indicated, the use of domestic drones appears to be moving forward regardless of privacy concerns.

As of October 2012, some 81 entities, including police departments, government agencies, and universities, have applied for permission to fly surveillance drones in US airspace, according to Federal Aviation Administration records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Among the police departments that have applied to use drones are the Houston Police Department, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the Seattle Police Department. (Concerned citizens in Seattle last month stopped the city’s drone program, to be used for search-and-rescue and criminal investigations, before it could start.)

Bloomberg says it may not be long before New Yorkers see drones flying overhead.

“It’s a different world,” he said. “Everybody wants their privacy, but I don’t know how you’re going to maintain it.”

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