Illinois Bill Authorizing Police to Fly Facial Recognition-Equipped Drones Over Protests Falters in House, For Now

Posted on May 31, 2018

Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois House has tabled a bill that would allow law enforcement across the state to deploy drones armed with facial recognition technology over large public demonstrations. The bill (SB 2562), which was adopted in the Illinois Senate by a considerable margin, hit a snag when House members, led notably by Representative Ann Williams, raised concerns about its potential for violating the privacy of demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights. 

Under current state law, police departments are already empowered to utilize drones for a wide array of purposes, including for use as part of a criminal investigation either after obtaining a warrant or for taking forensic photos at crime scenes, in scenarios where loss of life is highly likely, or as part of a search for missing persons. Not only does the relatively minimal operation of drones by law enforcement to date in spite of such ample latitude make an authorization for even more prolific use unnecessary, but considering the penchant law enforcement in the state has for monitoring purely peaceful protesters, granting agencies the authority to track protesters openly courts abuse. 

The facial recognition capabilities that drones sanctioned under this bill could potentially deploy is particularly concerning. Barring surveillance of public demonstrations with cell-site simulators, which is substantially less likely after the enaction of a law prohibiting their use without a warrant, facial-recognition poses a unique risk of enabling law enforcement to determine the identities of peaceful demonstrators. Police already make a practice of identifying and creating social graphs on protesters using mined and location-correlated social media posts, but facial recognition cameras mounted on drones would let them expand this practice to encompass even those who attend protests without publicizing their attendance on social media, or even if they decline to bring a smartphone or other internet-connected device at all. Such power to determine the nature of peaceful activist networks in the hands of departments known to engage in such monitoring paints a truly alarming picture. 

(For a vivid object lesson in how pervasive use of police facial-recognition surveillance can be pushed to unheard-of extremes unimagined even by Orwell, one need only look at the widely reported system of total surveillance being installed throughout China, hardly a model for a democratic society.) 

While the Illinois bill has hit a temporary setback, House supporters intend to bring it back up for a vote, ostensibly after privacy safeguards of some kind are introduced. Whether such prospective amendments will be more than cosmetic remains to be seen.   There is ample reason for concern that this dangerous bill could soon become law.  CCDBR urges contacting state representatives to urge opposition to SB 2562.  (You can track status of the bill and other legislation at ilga.gov)

You can read the full piece from the Chicago Tribune here.

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.