Police robots have been used in almost every aspect of law enforcement, including crime investigation and prevention. Robots can carry cameras, sensors, microphones, tools, and even weapons; using robots equipped with these features for surveillance and other tasks often allows law enforcement officers to operate out of harm’s way. Robots can move across the ground and fly through the air; robots have been used to scout potentially dangerous locations and articles, survey crime scenes for threats, and secure areas of dangerous people before the first human officer appears physically on the scene.
Robots can also be used to cause distractions or draw gunfire during tricky situations, such as police standoffs or when officers are in pursuit of armed and dangerous individuals. They can even be used as first responders after a disaster in order to establish a better idea of what dangers may still be present.
Police robots play a vital role in dangerous situations. Robots have been used to detect, defuse, or remove bombs and land mines. They have been used to assist special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams in takedowns and hostage situations, to open locked doors or windows, and some robots have even worked inside nuclear power plants and reactors. While there is little argument about the value of police robots in situations where they are used to protect human lives or remove dangerous threats, many people have raised concerns that the use of police robots may drift onto dangerous ground when it comes to individual rights, liberties, and basic privacy. These concerns arise from the fear that law enforcement officers will use police robots for surveillance in an unethical manner or in a way that will dodge due process requirements.
Police robots make it much easier for law enforcement officers to monitor suspects and collect evidence. Robots can use audio equipment to record conversations and cameras to observe locations and people. Both of these features create the potential for law enforcement officers to come across evidence by questionable ways and means—and by accident. Surveillance robots can lead officers to discover information that they normally would not be able to find without first establishing probable cause for seeking it because robots make surveillance easier and less obtrusive. This type of surveillance can be conducted by the use of drones and electronic imaging. Robots, unlike humans, are not aware of what it is or whom they are recording—and their handlers cannot be sure, either, until they examine the recordings.
The use of surveillance drones was originally limited to the military and special forces, but drones are now being used by the police forces and security companies at an ever-expanding rate. Drones allow larges areas to be monitored on a continuous basis. The same holds true for the use of electronic imaging. Electronic imagers can be used to detect electromagnetic radiation. This allows law enforcement officers to locate very small substances at a very great distance. Electronic imaging has become a useful tool in the War on Drugs. Law enforcement can now use these tools to locate sites where drugs are being grown. For example, coca and marijuana plants can be isolated so that law enforcement officers know their exact location.
The Supreme Court previously ruled on the use of technology in locating drugs. Danny Kyllo was suspected of growing marijuana by the Department of the Interior. The department used thermal imaging to check Kyllo’s house for high-intensity lamps that are often used in the production of marijuana. After the thermal scan revealed high-intensity areas within Kyllo’s house, a warrant was issued to search the house and Kyllo was subsequently arrested. Kyllo appealed his arrest on the grounds that the use of thermal imaging resulted in an illegal search, which violated the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled that the use of any device that is not used by the general public to explore a home that leads to the discovery of something that would not be apparent without a physical search is a “search” and is unreasonable without a warrant; as a result of this ruling, Kyllo’s conviction was reversed and his case dismissed.
Many in the general public as well as a significant segment of lawmakers feel that both of these methods of surveillance pose a threat to personal privacy. Because both methods can monitor large areas at one time and their domestic use is greatly increasing, it is very likely that officers are viewing and investigating locations for which they do not have proper warrants and authorization. Evidence obtained illegally, in this case collected without a warrant, is not admissible in court. The regulation of surveillance drones is becoming a widely debated issue for many stakeholders including lawmakers, the general public, and civil liberty lobbyists. By 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives and a House judiciary subcommittee began developing legislation that would protect
due process in cases where drones are used to collect evidence. Bipartisan support for this issue was strong, with many people believing that the law has not yet caught up to the new technologies available to law enforcement.
- Calo, M. Ryan. “The Drone as Privacy Catalyst.” Stanford Law Review Online, v.64/29 (2011). http://www.stanfordlawreview.org/online/drone-privacy-catalyst (Accessed October 2013).
- Montopoli, Brian. “Lawmakers Move to Limit Domestic Drones.” CBSNews. (May 16, 2013). http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57584695/lawmakers-move-to-limit-domestic-drones (Accessed October 2013).
- Overfelt, Maggie. “Terminator Town USA: Rise of the Everyday Robot.” CNBC (September 13, 2013). http://www.cnbc.com/id/101030655 (Accessed October 2013).
- Rothman, Josh. “Introducing Robot Ethics.” Boston Globe (February 22, 2012). http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2012/02/introducing_rob.html (Accessed May 2013).
- Sharkey, Noel. “The Robot Arm of the Law Grows Longer.” Computer, v.42/8 (2009).
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