Los Angeles Police Develop Sudden Privacy Concerns When Someone Flies A Drone Over Their Parking Lot

by Tim Cushing
Aug. 14, 2014

If your irony detector seems to be malfunctioning, this video of Los Angeles police officers confronting some activists flying a drone over a LAPD parking lot should reset it. At the very least, it should at least indicate whether the batteries need to be changed, as any powered irony detector should have the needle buried within minutes.

With a straight face and zero self-awareness, this was the message delivered to the drone operator and camera crew.
“What concerns us is that they are filming over private property and it's gated – you’re looking at the layout of the police station, how we operate, personnel license plates,” police Lt. Michael Ling said. “It’s kind of like if it was your house, if they’re flying over your backyard you’d start asking questions about it.”
Really? Can we start asking questions now? From June of this year:
On Friday, the [LAPD] announced that it had acquired two "unmanned aerial vehicles" as gifts from the Seattle Police Department.

The Draganflyer X6 aircraft, which resemble small helicopters, are each about 3 feet wide and equipped with a camera, video camera and infrared night-vision capabilities.
The LAPD says these drones will be deployed for "narrow and prescribed" uses, which even at its tightest reading means more than a few flights over private property. And considering the LAPD has been completely obfuscatory about its Stingray usage, there's no real reason to believe it will handle this technology any more responsibly than its cell tower spoofers.

Oh, and I thought license plates were public and could be gathered by the millions without raising privacy issues.
In its 2012 guidelines on ALPR, the International Association of Chiefs of Police remind us that a license plate “identifies a particular vehicle, not a particular person.” When the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted to install ALPR along Utah highways in 2012, an official told local legislators, “We're not trying to capture any personal information--all that this captures is the tag, regardless of who the driver is.”
While the LAPD has acknowledged the privacy implications of its massive license plate database (though mainly used as an excuse to thwart public records requests), it has also said this:
Releasing the subject ALPR data held by the Department would likewise "expose to the public the very sensitive investigative stages of determining whether a crime has been committed." All ALPR data is investigatory - regardless of whether a license plate scan results in an immediate "hit" because, for instance, the vehicle may be stolen, the subject of an "Amber Alert," or operated by an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant... The very process of checking license plates against various law enforcement lists, whether done manually by the officer or automatically through ALPR technology, is intrinsically investigatory - to determine whether a crime may have been committed. The mere fact that ALPR data is routinely gathered and may not --initially or ever-- be associated with a specific crime is not determinative of its investigative nature.
All license plate data is "investigatory." So, capturing plate data from LAPD officers' personal vehicles is nothing more than evidence gathering, whether or not any crime has been committed. This drone is the new Neighborhood Watch, no different than the LAPD's newly-acquired drones.

This interaction led to the following rebuttal.
"They bring up the expectation of privacy, I’m not buying it,” [drone operator Daniel] Saulmon told the Los Angeles Times. "Suddenly they’re talking about how I’m trespassing on a public sidewalk. They do not have an expectation of privacy…if you want privacy, build a roof."
The LAPD can't have it both ways. It can't claim the right to "film" citizens and prevent them from reciprocating. Or can it?
Los Angeles police on Friday said they have asked the city attorney’s office and county prosecutors to explore whether they can legally prohibit civilians from flying drones with cameras over department-owned parking lots.
Really? If the city attorney has even the smallest amount of self-awareness and/or spine he or she will laugh the LAPD right out of the office. If these entities support a prohibition of drone flights over their public buildings, they should be asked to ground their drones and disable their plate readers. I'm sure the words "officer safety" will be thrown around to justify yet another double standard, but screw the LAPD for having the temerity to think this idea should be entertained, much less having crossed its mind without tripping all over itself.

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