Aug 25, 2023

NYC public messaging drones will creep out New Yorkers: critics

Drones may take the place of loudspeakers atop roving New York City police vehicles as a way of getting out the word in natural disasters, weather events and other calamities — but critics fear the plan will cause more panic than any real emergency ever could.

The drones “would convey critical information and keep you connected with up-to-date info,” according to an NYPD tweet.

The drones will have the capability to broadcast audio messages — though the NYPD and its partner in the project, NYC Emergency Management, haven’t fully explained how the public messaging plan will work.

But Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, has opinions on the idea.

“Drones are a terrible way to alert New Yorkers, but they are a great way to creep us out,” said Cahn, whose group, known by the acronym STOP, fights to make sure advances in technology don’t infringe on individual rights.

Weather-related emergencies & natural disasters can potentially cause havoc to our critical infrastructure. In the event of a power or telecom failure, the NYPD & the @nycemergencymgt will deploy drones to convey critical information & keep you connected with up-to-date info.

The public messaging plan is just another “absurd deployment of drones” by police, Cahn said.

According to the NYPD, the drones will be an “updated version of the television/radio emergency broadcast system,” a department spokesman told the Daily News.

“The drones will be able to relay real-time information throughout these emergencies, even if widespread power outages cause the electricity, cellular service, and other critical infrastructure to fail,” the spokesman said. “The purpose of this innovative strategy is to keep people properly informed and to mitigate any misinformation, which can lead to panic and anxiety.”

The use of the drones “will be transparent, consistent, and always done in collaboration with the people that we serve,” the spokesman added. “As with every NYPD initiative, we will continuously evaluate their use and impact on our city.”

New Yorkers have had mixed reactions to NYPD drones and robots.

No one seemed to care when the FDNY flew drones into a collapsed parking garage to look for survivors in lower Manhattan in April or to give eye-in-the-sky updates on how they were dousing a crane on fire 47 stories above Midtown on July 26.

But in 2021, when the NYPD used a robotic dog, nicknamed the “digidog,” for an investigation a housing project in Manhattan, it was immediately derided as a creepy dystopian surveillance tool that was being aggressively forced on communities of color.

The NYPD was forced to retire the robot and end its contract with Boston Dynamics, the machine’s maker. In April, the department brought back the digidog, but in a limited capacity.

The idea of drones with loudspeakers isn’t quite cutting edge.

In China, drones were used to warn Shanghai residents to stay indoors during a 2022 COVID lockdown. “Please comply with Covid restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing,” the drones announced.

Cops in Hawaii also used drones to enforce COVID lockdown orders.

Police in Irvine, Calif. have used drones to alert neighborhoods about missing persons.

NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban, left, speaks to reporters about drones on July 21. Mayor Adams is at his right. (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

Irvine Police Department Detective Steve Meyer said drones are a “great tool” in getting important messages out.

“There are always concerns on how the community will feel about the drones, but so far they are very well received,” Meyer said. “They’ve been pretty good for us.”

But critics like Cahn say the proposal violates the city’s Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, which demands the NYPD provide public notice and seek comment before deploying new surveillance systems such as drones.

“I find it profoundly ironic that the city is so secretive about a tool that’s supposed to alert the public,” said Cahn. “They haven’t said how the tests went or how this ludicrous plan will fly. It’s really going to come crashing down to earth as soon as they use it in a real crisis.”

An NYPD official with knowledge of the tests said the plan is in its infancy stage.

The general idea is to fly the drones low over communities, particularly outside Manhattan, and use them to warn residents of impending weather events such as tornadoes or heavy rains.

The broadcasts, which will be in different languages, would encourage residents to shelter in place or seek higher ground, depending on the emergency.

It’s still being figured out how the drones will be deployed, but the plan’s success won’t be fully evaluated until an actual emergency occurs, the official said.

NYPD officers demonstrated their drones at a media event in July. (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

Cahn said the city has gone drone happy lately, but aren’t using the flyers effectively.

“The city’s pushing for the deployment of drones that make no sense,” he said. “They’re interested in something that looks cool rather than something that solves the problem.”

It’s only a matter of time before a radio-controlled police state becomes a real reality, he said.

“We know that American police departments have already used drones and robots to kill someone,” said Cahn. “But there is no law on the books to stop the NYPD from strapping a Taser or something worse onto these knock-off Robocops.”