Prying Eyes: Government Drone Data Across New York State

Numerous highly advanced drones with the capacity to spy on New Yorkers have been obtained by New York government agencies. But until now there was little publicly known about just how many of these invasive drones fill the arsenal of police departments and other government entities. The NYCLU has published the most comprehensive picture yet of how many drones are deployed by government agencies, including law enforcement, across our state.

A NYCLU Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed: 

  • There are 530 active drone registrations by 85 different New York government entities across the state. 

  • The majority (327) of these drones are operated by law enforcement agencies.

  • The New York State Police holds a whopping 126 active registrations.

  • The Nassau County Police Department alone has 33 drones, the highest for any local police department.

  • The Capital Region, the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New York City have a particularly high concentration of government drones. 

The dangers posed by these incredibly powerful spying devices are hard to overstate, and they’re being used with almost no regulation. New York should tightly regulate the use of drones by law enforcement.
 

Drones pose serious risks to New Yorkers’ privacy and safety. Despite this, police departments rarely disclose how or when they are used, what type of information they are collecting, where and for how long the departments store that information, and who has access to it.

Drones can be used to track a huge number of people or vehicles over a vast area. Some drones are so small you likely wouldn’t notice them if they peered into your home’s window or followed you as you walked down the street, visited your doctor’s office, or entered your place of worship.

Advancements in camera and lens technology also allow them to stay hidden and to spy from long distances. At the same time, many are able to zoom in to see minute details, such as faces and license plates. Drones have also become cheaper and can operate for long periods of time without needing to refuel or leave the air. Some can even fly autonomously.

Drones can also be equipped with biometric surveillance capabilities like facial recognition, gait recognition, emotion recognition, or behavior detection — and even when the data is inaccurate, law enforcement may rely on it to arrest people. They can be outfitted to detect objects, including license plates. They can also use infrared or thermal imaging technology and even microphones sensitive enough to hear personal conversations.

These capabilities represent unprecedented risks to New Yorkers’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and concerns over their use are not just theoretical. Police aerial surveillance is rife with examples of misuse and abuse.

 

Drones have been deployed to police recent political protests. U.S. Customs and Border Protection used drones and other aerial surveillance tools to monitor protests against police violence in 15 different cities, including by deploying a Predator drone –military hardware – in Minneapolis. The ACLU of Northern California uncovered aerial surveillance of racial justice protests all over the state. And last year, a court ruled that the Baltimore Police Department’s aerial surveillance program – which put the daytime movements of virtually all Baltimore residents under surveillance for 12 hours a day over six months – was unconstitutional.

Drones are also increasingly being combined with other invasive technologies. New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed interest in deploying drones paired with controversial ShotSpotter audio recording devices along rooftops. And a police department in Westport, Connecticut deployed drones coupled with thermal imagery and biometric recognition software that tracked people’s heart rate, sneezing, coughing, and distance from one another. This was a wildly inaccurate, ineffective, and invasive measure in the early days of the COVID response.

While there is no current evidence that drones operating in New York are armed, many of the drones being deployed by police departments in our state have the capacity to be weaponized and there is currently no law that prevents police departments from doing so.

Some departments have already shown an interest in arming technology with lethal weapons. The Dallas Police Department, for example, repurposed a bomb-disposal robot to kill a suspect, and the Oakland Police Department tried to get the City to let it arm robots with guns.

 

The data we’ve collected shows rapid growth and expansion of drone use in New York in recent years. In 2020 alone, 200 government drones were registered. And in just the first six months of 2022, another 79 drones were added.

Across the state, 85 different agencies have drones in their arsenal, ready to fly. We can expect this number to grow. In the 2022 state budget, Governor Hochul set aside $20 million for advanced surveillance technologies, including drones, for local law enforcement agencies without limitations and oversight. 



The vast majority of all registered drones – approximately 86 percent – are made by DJI. The company was added to the U.S. government’s economic blacklist, for allegedly raising national security concerns and enabling human rights abuses. The Department of Defense subsequently reaffirmed the potential threat to national security posed by DJI in 2021 and added the company to the list of military-civil fusion entities in October 2022.

Many of the other drone companies used by New York agencies have checkered histories and their products are often explicitly designed and advertised as military tools. The use of these technologies furthers the dangerous militarization of local law enforcement that we’ve seen over the past several decades.

Parrot’s Anafi drone is described as being “designed for the US Army.” The company Aeryon claimed its Skyranger drone is “battle-tested” while trumpeting that it’s been deployed by 20 national militaries across the world. UAV Solutions’ Ghost 60 drone was marketed to the Army and Special Forces and selected by the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate of the Department of Defense. Now the NYPD has two of these drones in its arsenal.

The drones revealed through the FOIA data have frightening capabilities. Skydio drones – of which there are ten in use across New York – feature advanced AI, autonomous flights, thermal cameras that can sense body heat, and 3D mapping capabilities.

The New York State Police owns an Acecore Zoe drone which can detect and identify people and objects from up to 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) away. This drone supports heavy payloads for a variety of dangerous items or invasive technologies: for example, it explicitly offers a tether for “unlimited” flight times and a “vehicle follow-me” function to autonomously track and fly after moving vehicles.

There are also 29 Autel drones deployed across the state. They include thermal sensors and claim to recognize subjects from up to 100 meters away. They also offer “predictive target tracking” to follow or identify targets.

Almost all of these drones are being operated with little or no oversight, and there is nothing stopping police departments from acquiring and deploying many more in the years to come.


 

We can’t count on law enforcement agencies to police themselves, and that’s especially true when it comes to the use of invasive, military-grade technologies like drones. State leaders must put the clamps on police use of these devices.

A bill in the state legislature (S675/A3311) would prohibit drone surveillance of protests and other events and activities protected by the First Amendment and require a search warrant before drones are used in police investigations. It would also prohibit drones from using facial recognition software, weapons, or crowd control devices.

This legislation would, for the first time, subject drone use to public oversight. It would set rules for the public accessibility, retention, and deletion of drone-collected data, and subject private drone operating companies to the same rules as law enforcement.

This legislation recognizes that unregulated use of drones by police poses a unique threat to our rights to protest, privacy, and to be free from invasive and warrantless government surveillance.
 

HOW WE RECEIVED THE DATA

Inspired by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information request to the FAA for all active registrations by New York government agencies, including law enforcement agencies. We encourage others to replicate these requests in their respective states to get a more complete picture of the widespread use of drones.

You can access and download the spreadsheets as per the file names below. We edited to remove erroneous duplicates from the dataset, consolidated agencies that were falsely separated, and corrected misspellings.