Preventing an Air Panopticon: A Proposal for Reasonable Legal Restrictions on Aerial Surveillance

Jake Laperruque *

Imagine a world where a small plane flies miles above a city, effectively invisible to its inhabitants, but looking down on them. Meanwhile, a series of drones, controlled in a semi-automated pattern by a single operator, hover over the surrounding suburbs. A select group of monitors—no more than a dozen members of the local police force—pinpoint areas of interest in real time, including a large protest, several doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, and a mosque. These officers are able to zoom in from cameras on the high-flying aircraft to identify individuals by their faces and log their activities. Meanwhile, a small group of federal agents review footage from these planes recorded over the course of the last sixth months, creating a precise map of the movements of hundreds of “persons of interest” over that entire period, and cataloging the places they visited and people they interacted with. Using automated identification tools, this process is rapid and simple. The agents will soon move on to a new set of targets, ensuring the government has a complete movement log of a huge portion of the metro area‘s population in time to repeat the process for the next six-month period.

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* Senior Counsel, The Constitution Project, Washington, D.C. J.D., 2013, Harvard Law School; B.S., 2010, Washington University in St. Louis.