The Boston Police Department has quietly taken steps to expand its drone surveillance program this year without notifying the City Council or the public, raising concerns among privacy advocates about the transparency of its technology use.
In early March, the department purchased another high-performance drone and plans to create a drone team to operate it, according to documents obtained by the Globe. The $25,000 aircraft is the department’s eighth drone in active use, according to the department, and one of its most advanced. A police spokesman, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, said the use of all department drones remains limited to approved operations, such as crime-scene reconstruction or monitoring security during special events including the Boston Marathon.
But the expansion renewed concern that police drones could be used to carry out routine surveillance that violates people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches. Last fall, the City Council passed an ordinance that will require the department to disclose all previous and future surveillance technology purchases to the council, starting July 20. In addition to requiring the department to obtain permission from the council before purchasing new technology, the ordinance also allows the council to review technology already purchased by the police and decide whether the department may continue using it.
A spokesperson from Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said the mayor “will ensure that this [purchase] is in full compliance with the surveillance oversight ordinance” once it formally takes effect.
Over a dozen police departments in the state regularly use drones — law enforcement drones make up over 40 percent of all those registered to government agencies in the state, according to data reported by the Massachusetts ACLU.
The Police Department’s history of discreet purchases raised concerns late last year after an investigation by WBUR radio and ProPublica discovered it bought spyware out of the public eye using funds seized during alleged crimes.
“The acquisition and use of technologies like this need to be vetted before the technology is purchased and put into use because far too often, what we see is the acquisition of these tools in secret and then their use disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the Massachusetts ACLU, of the department’s most recent purchase.
In 2017, several residents of the Mildred C. Hailey housing development in Jamaica Plain photographed two uniformed police officers “testing out” a drone over their apartments. The department said the officers were likely “playing with a toy” and that all drones purchased by Boston police at that time were still in their packaging. A representative from then-mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office assured the public that “if and when the Boston Police Department uses the drones, it will be after a community engagement process.”
The department bought this most recent drone, and supporting equipment, from local company Ascent Aerosystems, according to documents obtained by the Globe. A City of Boston purchase order indicates that the department selected the company’s all-weather, high-performance Spirit drone, which costs $14,000, as well as an object-tracking thermal imager for $10,000 and several other pieces of equipment.
In a letter to the city justifying the purchase, Sergeant Detective Carl Blando, who manages the department’s drones, explained the department was seeking a versatile drone to use on a variety of “missions,” including crowd management, crime scene mapping, “photographic and video deployments,” and “special circumstances,” as well as “other special events assigned by the commissioner, superintendent in chief, and/or the Boston police [unmanned aerial system] manager or designee.”
Police would need an aircraft with “robust communication abilities . . . able to perform and function in highly inclement weather,” Blando wrote, that “must be designed to incorporate new technologies as they develop.”
Wu’s spokesperson said in a statement that any expansion of the department’s current surveillance capacities would be to “provide visual information when it could be dangerous or inaccessible for BPD staff to do so, for example in unstable buildings, investigation of suspicious packages, or to detect radiation.”
“The department is clear that there will be diligent focus on civil liberties and privacy, and will comply with the policies outlined in the surveillance ordinance,” the statement said. Boyle confirmed that the ordinance is being incorporated into the department’s existing rule on drone use.
Crockford said she’s hopeful that hearings on the department’s past and future purchases conducted after the ordinance takes effect will give privacy advocates and policy makers a chance to “push police to be more specific about the ways technologies like this will be used.”
Since the current police policy says ”department drones may be deployed including, but not limited to the following situations, that means they can be used for anything,” she said. “That’s not a limitation.”
In addition to buying surveillance equipment, police also want to hire and train 15 officers to operate the drones on an “on-call basis.” Documents obtained by the Globe state that the department was set to start accepting applications last Friday. Drone-operating officers would be required to have a valid Federal Aviation Administration license and a remote pilot certificate specifically for small drones.
Since Boston police started operating drones in 2019, their use has been limited to the Crime Scene Response Unit. However, in September 2021, about two weeks before updating their drone policy, police transferred Blando, the department’s lone unmanned aircraft system manager, to Homeland Security, a two-man unit that currently only includes Blando and unit Captain Timothy Connolly.
Documents obtained by the Globe state that the department is “clear that its intent [is] to expand the use of drones... beyond crime scene investigations,” indicating the switch to Homeland Security is the beginning of an effort to increase drone operations.
Crockford called the transition of the drone program to Homeland Security a “concerning” extension of surveillance capabilities beyond regular police responsibilities.
Whomever Wu appoints as police commissioner would also have significant power over the drone unit. Under current city policy, the commissioner has the authority to determine what special events or circumstances require the use of a drone — and if a drone unit were created, the final say over who pilots the aircraft.
“While all applicants will be evaluated based on qualifications and experience, the final decision will be based on the best interest of the Department as determined by the Police Commissioner,” the job description states.
Kendra Lara was one of several city councilors who said she was not aware the department had recently purchased another drone and echoed the importance of reviewing all surveillance technology purchased by police after the ordinance goes into effect.
“It’s important that we are protecting citizens from undue surveillance by the police, so the creation of a unit at that level would be scrutinized by the council,” she said. " We will also be looking closely at the privacy policies around this surveillance equipment and where that data goes to ensure we do not violate the rights of our residents.”
Ivy Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.