Drones in Utah: Invasion of privacy or protection against crime?

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 4:10 p.m. MDT

Local law enforcement agencies gather around a drone and surveillance equipment demonstration Thursday at Weber County Fairgrounds, considering the advantages and disadvantages of drones as a tool for police work.

Marc Weaver, Deseret News

OGDEN — Hobby shop owner Jonathan McBride presses several buttons on a joystick as a six-propeller drone travels about 40 mph overhead, ruffling the hair of several curious law enforcement officials at the Weber County Fairgrounds.

Local law enforcement agencies gathered around a drone and surveillance equipment demonstration Thursday, considering the ramifications of using the latest technology to fight crime.

“It’s a bit like the gun issue,” said Troy May, CEO of Digital Defense Surveillance, an Ogden-based surveillance equipment company that conducted the demonstration. “If these drones get in the wrong hands, with someone who doesn’t have the right intentions, they can be harmful.”

Questions as to where the privacy line is drawn must arise, May said.

"Yes, the drones could be used to search for marijuana very easily," he said. "If there's a criminal running through people's yards, at what point is the public going to think it's an invasion of privacy? Looking in people's windows is where I would draw the line, and it becomes invasion of privacy."

May said he is pushing to get drones in the hands of law enforcement. Police officials agree, noting that they would be sure to use the drones within legal and constitutional parameters.

“People are always concerned about government intrusion, and that’s normal,” said Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson. “With drones, we would have policy governing them, dictating how we would use them and how we would store information used with them, because we have no intention of violating any constitutional limitations.”

This new type of technology offers the potential to make local communities safer, Thompson said. The drones would be helpful to search and rescue efforts, as well as tactical operations, such as when an individual is barricaded.

“We can get a close-up look at what’s happening with a drone, with a live video surveillance feed back to us, so we don’t put people in harm’s way,” he said.

The drones are easily maneuverable and require little training, May said. “It pretty much flies itself.”

In terms of privacy issues, Thompson said officials are still educating themselves about the devices and identifying potential uses.

“Policy will be down the road,” he said. “We will look for policy that is already in place and being used successfully across the country, being very careful to not challenge constitutional or statutory privacy concerns.”

The goal, Thompson said, is safer communities.

“When it comes to making our communities a safer, more secure place for all of our residents, we are looking at every option, every potential possibility out there, because technology is so cool and it does so many things for us,” he said. “There are so many different ways we can use it, and we certainly want to take advantage of that when we can.”

Drones are available across the world, said Jonathan McBride, manager of Adrenaline RC Hobbies, a hobby shop in Riverdale.

McBride said he became interested in drones when customers started asking for them.

“It made sense to learn about them, which led to setting them up, getting them ready to go, and now building them for clients,” he said.

The devices, which have between four and six propellers, are controlled by a joystick or a computer system, McBride said. Some can fly up to 50 mph, reaching heights that make the drones invisible to the human eye.

Many can run on an optional solar-powered system to further reduce energy consumption, he said. The drones cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000, depending upon the level and capacity of the device.

For McBride, the drones have little potential to be harmful.

“A cop can walk around with a video camera in his hand," he said, "so the thing about this is it’s a flying video camera.”

If the devices were used for spying, some restrictions should be made, Thompson said, but the advantages are worth the risk.

“I’m all for it," he said. “If (my kid was) in a backyard somewhere and we can’t physically see in there, I’ll fly one of these things back and forth in my neighborhoods if I have to.”

Email: rlowry@deseretnews.com.

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