Future Tense

Topless Beach Drone Scandal!

Photo illustration of a woman with out a top in front of a crowded beach with a drone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by sergio_kumer/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Dan Gold/Unsplash, and Murmakova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The isolated Twin Lake beach outside of Minneapolis is known as a haven for freewheeling summer behavior, a place where sunbathers feel comfortable socializing, drinking, and occasionally taking their tops off. According to local authorities, the beach has also been the site of sexual assaults, drownings, drunk driving, and other illicit behavior, drawing regular complaints from nearby homeowners. On July 10, police decided to take action. But instead of sending on-foot officers to the scene to hunt for rule-breakers, they flew their zoom camera–equipped DJI Matrice drone over the beach, in hope of catching them in the act. Police reasoned that the drone could help them deescalate things by avoiding unnecessary personal interaction, in light of the pandemic and the police brutality protests that had ignited over the death of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in late May, in nearby Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, it did the opposite.

As officers from the Golden Valley Police Department and the Minneapolis Park Police (who worked together on the operation) watched the drone footage stream back, they say it showed clear footage of nudity, alcohol, and other infractions. Seven officers headed to the beach to find the people they’d seen on the drone video in person. As officers took information from alleged infractors, shocked beachgoers expressed surprise and anger at being confronted with an apparently breast-seeking police drone, in a place where they thought nudity was at least tacitly permitted.

One Twitter user said she received a ticket for “being topless at the beach” due to the drone footage—and noted that “the cops bee-lined straight for the black people only.” The Golden Valley Police’s press release disputed this claim of racism, although another woman interviewed by local news backed up the Twitter user. A third woman expressed anger over the discriminatory nature of the park rules, which permit men to go topless but bar women from doing the same. Bystander footage of officer conversations with beachgoers shows one police officer with an N95 mask secured to his chest, while another has a surgical mask bunched under her chin—imagery that somewhat contradicts a police statement about how the drone was intended to reduce “face-to-face” interactions during the pandemic crisis. The police eventually retreated from the scene as beachgoers grew angrier. Soon, multiple news outlets carried stories about the backlash to the apparently boob-seeking drone: In response to the criticism, the Minneapolis Park Board even said that it would likely remove the “discriminatory language that targets female breasts” entirely.

The deescalation experiment had not, it seemed, gone well.

When I spoke to Jason Sturgis, the chief of the Golden Valley Police Department, he said that he was a “little bit” surprised by the backlash, although he acknowledged the privacy-fueled reasons why people were angry. He said he’d been paying attention to the protests, and he hoped the drone would be a less emotionally charged means of scoping out the situation: His department had been demonstrating the drone for months, in hope of gaining local trust (including sending loudspeaker drones to sing at children’s birthday parties during the height of lockdown). “It seemed like a good idea when we went to do it. It met the criteria for being smart and safe,” he said. “We’re hoping Minneapolis Park Police will handle enforcement at the beach,” Sturgis told me. He did not sound eager to repeat his drone’s beach-side flight any time soon.

The Golden Valley Police Department’s well-intended but very wrong assumption about drone as deescalation tool is a familiar one among regular drone users. Because its people were comfortable with drones, they grossly overestimated how comfortable the average person actually is with the prospect of being looked at by a flying camera drone, much less one that’s zeroing in on their private bits. Their use of a drone to search for rule-breakers at a de facto nude beach played right into the oldest drone-ethics scenario in the book: that of a topless sunbather being startled in her backyard by a sweaty pervert with a drone. It’s a hypothetical that feeds into our deepest fears about how surveillance tech can violate our privacy and safety when we’re vulnerable, when we least expect it.

While the Golden Valley Police have somewhat huffily pointed out that the Twin Lake beachgoers were in a public area and “had no expectation of privacy,” and that the drone is “no different than a surveillance camera,” these legal arguments—technically accurate as they are—amount to essentially bupkis against the terrific symbolic power of a weird flying robot watching unsuspecting naked people. While the police flight was perfectly legal, it still feels like a violation when you realize someone has been using a drone to shoot high-resolution imagery of your breasts. It’s also a lot more unexpected: While people are mostly accustomed to surveillance cameras on busy streets, we’re more disturbed by the panopticonlike prospect of a surveillance camera that can literally be anywhere at any time, including at the local unofficial nude beach.

Finally, the Golden Valley police flew their drone into an ongoing storm of public attention and debate over what the purpose of police aerial surveillance tech ought to be. Small police drones—and even a military Predator UAS on one occasion—popped up regularly during the George Floyd protests in May and June, prompting renewed calls for far stricter regulations on how law enforcement can use drones and drone data. In New York, a new bill will require police to release public information about the surveillance tools they use (which include drones), while another new New York campaign is calling for a ban on the warrantless use of drones by police.

In Minnesota, a comprehensive new ACLU-backed law restricting the police use of drones will go into effect Aug. 1. (The Golden Valley Police department updated its own internal policies to reflect this law on July 15—five days after the Twin Lake incident.) It will, among other things, require that police obtain a warrant to use a drone unless they receive an exception. The most important permits drone use “to collect information from a public area if there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” It’s unclear if this very broad exception would or wouldn’t apply in the case of the Golden Valley police drone at the beach, and it’s likely that future controversies over the drone rule will revolve around how the exception is interpreted.

The rule also requires that police “document each use of” a drone and identify the exception that they operated under if they didn’t secure a warrant, information that will be made available to the public. Finally, it mandates that police delete all drone data—which would include imagery of nude people—after seven days unless it’s related to an active criminal investigation (another area of the law that will likely lead to quite a bit of interpretation-based argument). In the absence of clear federal guidelines around the use of drones by police, the best Americans can hope for is the passage of more state and local-level rules like these that place explicit barriers around police drone use.

The Golden Valley Police Department made its final error by using a drone to crack down on seemingly minor crimes. While police say they’ve received complaints about more serious behavior than nudity, that’s not what the drone captured on July 10. By acting upon these more minor violations, they inadvertently made themselves look like yet another example of overreaching police—the opposite of what they say their intentions were.

As the Golden Valley PD learned, government drones go over best when they’re used in scenarios that are either egregiously serious—like a drowning child—or obviously noncontroversial—like delivering a mildly dystopian happy birthday message. The profound importance of context in drone operations is borne out by public opinion research, like this 2018 study that found that a drone’s intended purpose is the most important predictor of public support. Drones can be a remarkably useful tool for saving lives and collecting evidence, but they’re a lot less useful if their presence only makes everyone suspicious and angry. Drones, like police themselves, can only serve with the consent of the community. That’s true whether they’re flying over nude beaches or protests.

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