Your local neighborhood drones…

As autonomous vehicles and drones start to become a reality, various possible uses of the technology naturally come to mind. One of the most interesting possibilities is autonomous drone security and policing. The image goes something like this. In the hopes of having more eyes on the streets, police departments in some cities may eventually start using autonomous drones to patrol high-crime areas and during special events. This would primarily provide added surveillance, essentially (drone) eyes on the street. Drones would be outfitted with night-vision sensors and various algorithms for detecting suspicious behavior. When a drone detects something that is suspicious, it notifies the dispatch so that police can respond and investigate. This is not a “robocop” vision, in which drones themselves respond crime, but merely one that extends current automated surveillance techniques already used in many American cities (for instance, gunshot detectors).

Such a system obviously has significant potential to reduce crime and improve the lives of those living in high-crime areas. Increasing the likelihood that crimes will immediately be responded to dramatically increases the expected costs to criminals. If one expects to be followed by a drone immediately after mugging or shooting someone, and then consequently found by the police, there is little sense to the action. This would also likely make people feel far safer in their own neighborhoods, and might create a virtuous cycle in which greater feelings of safety cause more people to be on the streets, which then further increases community surveillance and reduces crime.

Of course, the above vision is also horrifying. It introduces a prospect of total police surveillance, in which the government has a complete record of everything that goes on at all times. And the likelihood that such a policing strategy would disproportionately affect those in minority neighborhoods makes it even worse. It combines the possible nightmare of a police state with problems of racial discrimination. Consequently, it is a future that will likely be closed off by law, whether conventional or constitutional. For Progressives it goes against their commitments to privacy, civil liberties, and limited police powers.

What about the private use of “security” drones? It is entirely possible that cheap drones could (in the not too distant future) be available to private citizens and community groups as well as the government. A neighborhood watch organization could plausibly buy the sort of autonomous drones that I describe above, to provide extra eyes on the street. They similarly may be set up to call 911 upon seeing a possible crime, just like a nosy neighbor. This sort of (highly effective) “neighborhood watch” might be just as transformative for people living in high-crime neighborhoods as police drones, and produce an environment that is nearly as disturbing. “Neighborhood-watch” drones may buzz around watching one’s every move. It doesn’t seem to matter significantly in this sense that they are not owned by the police.

I think that the Progressive is forced to support such drone programs, and in fact, it may be important for progressive organizations to someday fund the purchase of drones for neighborhood organizations that want them. However, it also presents Progressives with a serious dilemma of values. The fear and violence that so many Americans face on a daily basis is too deplorable to be ignored. Although the root causes of these conditions lie in deeply rooted social and economic problems, those issues are unlikely to be solved before drone technology may be of significant use. Likewise, other than an extensive limitation on handgun ownership, which is unlikely to happen for a very long time (if ever), no public policies of any kind are likely to solve the problems of public safety in the foreseeable future.

The problem, of course, is that the choices of some individuals (in setting loose drones) would be transforming the environment for all. The prospect of outside organizations paying for the drones makes matters even worse. It is entirely feasible that the drones patrolling the far south side of Chicago may be provided (to neighborhood groups) by law-and-order nonprofits primarily funded by rich white suburbanites. How we think about this largely depends upon what priority we give public safety. Conservatives often take the provision of public safety to be the primary purpose of the state. But given how necessary minimal levels of justice and safety are to being able to live a good life, Progressives must also take this more seriously. And we would do well to think about how changes in technology might radically effect policing strategies and public safety in the next couple decades.