LA's spy-in-the-sky drone sparks privacy concerns

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The Independent US

The future of law enforcement was launched into the smoggy Los Angeles skies at the weekend in the form of a drone aircraft intended to bring spy-in-the-sky technology to urban policing.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, called the SkySeer, looks like a remote-controlled toy and fits into a shoulder bag. In the air, the craft is guided by global positioning system coordinates, and a camera fixed to the underside sends video to a laptop command station.

A prototype is being tested by the LA county sheriff's department, which says the SkySeer will accomplish tasks too dangerous for officers, and free helicopters for other missions. "This technology could be used to find missing children, search for lost hikers or survey a fire zone," said Commander Sid Heal, head of the sheriff's department technology exploration project. "The plane is virtually silent and invisible."

The SkySeer, which has low-light and infrared capabilities and can fly at speeds of up to 30mph, would also be able to spot burglary suspects.

Commander Heal believes it will be the first of many unmanned surveillance crafts which will be used in police work. "Who knew five years ago we would be shooting photos and videos with our phones?" he said. "I can see this drone technology replacing some conventional aircraft in 10 years."

The LA sheriff's department operates 18 helicopters costing £2m to £3m each. The SkySeer costs £15,000 to £23,000.

Although the SkySeer is not yet capable of spying into windows, some critics are uneasy about eyes in the sky monitoring daily life.

"A helicopter can be seen and heard and one can make behaviour choices based on that," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Do we really want to live in a society where our backyard barbecues will be open to police scrutiny?"

Police say the concerns are unwarranted because everybody is already under surveillance.

"You shouldn't be worried about being spied on by your government," said Commander Heal. "These days you can't go anywhere without a camera watching you, whether you're in a grocery store or walking down the street."