Those fixated on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are fond of saying that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. While that may be true, all those guns on U.S. streets certainly make killing easier for people.

Similarly, many people think law enforcement should use every new technology and argue that cameras and facial recognition and armored tanks and all the rest aren’t the problem, but rather the problem is those who would use this stuff in nefarious ways. That is true, too, although the proliferation of these privacy-busting toys sure does make it easier to snoop on the populace.

We note the connection because the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office would like to spend $65,000 on six drones and the training to use them. The sheriff’s team says the drones will be used for only the most pressing and highest use. Cliff rescues! Fleeing felons! Active shooters!

If you think the sheriff’s drones are more likely to be eventually hovering over your neighborhood intersection waiting for you to roll through a stop sign, you must be a cynic. And if you think law enforcement might one day be much more intrusive than that, you might be as cynical as the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In a 1989 case styled as Florida v. Riley, the court ruled that police could peep into greenhouses from an airplane because they were able to see enough from that vantage with the naked eye to obtain a warrant for a drug case. Nonetheless, Justice O’Connor wrote at the time, “Imagine a helicopter capable of hovering just above an enclosed courtyard or patio without generating any noise, wind, or dust at all and, for good measure, without posing any threat of injury. Suppose the police employed this miraculous tool to discover not only what crops people were growing in their greenhouses, but also what books they were reading and who their dinner guests were. … Would (you) continue to assert that ‘the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures’ was not infringed by such surveillance?”

The police now have that “miracle tool” in the drone. And it likely will be hovering over you before too long. 

The air above us is just the latest camera postion that law enforcement says it needs. Last year, the clamor was for license-plate readers to be pointed at Coastside intersections. Then, as now, sheriff’s officials proposed writing their own rules for use of the things. Then, as now, they were to be used primarily to find stolen children and so on. Then, as now, we had our doubts about that.

We should arm our police agencies with the tools of the digital age, but — like the late Justice O’Connor — we should recognize the extraordinary power they represent in the hands of the state. There must be laws governing their use, not internal policies. Otherwise, we can look to nations like China to understand what happens when authorities watch our every move.

— Clay Lambert

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