Proposed legislation would allow expanded use of drones (inset) to monitor large public events like the Women's March this past January. Credit: Sun-Times

Civil liberties groups are pushing back against proposed legislation in Illinois that would allow police to dramatically expand the use of drones to monitor large gatherings of people and equip those drones with cameras with controversial facial recognition technology.

The legislation, which amends a previous law limiting drone surveillance, passed the Illinois senate earlier this month. The changes would allow police to use drones at any “large-scale public event” of 100 or more people without a warrant. The changes would provide no limitations on the use drones to monitor political protests, religious gatherings, and other constitutionally protected activities.

“This is a disturbing extension of surveillance, it can be misused in so many ways,” Democratic state rep Kelly Cassidy said last week.

On Monday, another two amendments were introduced. One, put forth by proponents of expansion, would limit the use of facial recognition technology at events of more than 1,500 people and require police departments to maintain policies on reporting when drones are used. Another, by those, including state rep Ann Williams, would bump the minimum crowd size for drone monitoring to 10,000, limit the use of facial recognition software, and add requirements that police destroy the footage within a set period of time.

Williams couldn’t be reached for comment.

Currently, an Illinois statute known as the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act allows police departments to use drones without a warrant only in an emergency where “swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life.”

The original attempts to expand police drone use were introduced earlier this year by state senator Martin Sandoval and state rep John D’Amico, who introduced the additional amendment Monday in an attempt to gain more support for the changes, which fell six votes shy of the three-fifths majority needed to gain passage Friday.

D’Amico said last week he believes drones could help prevent mass shootings, for example. He could not immediately be reached for comment Monday night.

Many civil liberties groups, including the ACLU of Illinois and Lucy Parsons Labs (full disclosure: I serve on the lab’s board), are fighting any changes to the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act, saying the proposals would gut Illinois’s strong privacy protections and make it easier to use technology that many criticize as inaccurate.

The ACLU says the proposed expansion of police powers comes in part from a push from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

“Their amendment goes way beyond the previous law, and the city has not shown one example of how police don’t have the power they need,” said Khadine Bennett, the ACLU’s director of Advocacy and Intergovernmental Affairs.

City officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Bennett said that in negotiations over the changes to Illinois law, city officials urged that expanded powers were needed after incidents like last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, when a gunman fired into a crowd at an outdoor concert, killing 58 people.

“[They say] because of what we saw in Las Vegas—the mass shooting—we need to have more power for public safety,” Bennett said.

The text of the bill says drone use would be “limited to legitimate public safety purposes, including, but not limited to, evaluating crowd size, density, or movement, assessing public safety vulnerabilities or weaknesses, determining appropriate staffing levels for law enforcement or other public safety personnel, or identifying possible criminal activity.”

She said the city has said that possible events that could be monitored—and protected—by drones include Lollapalooza and the Women’s March.

But the changes could also allow cops to use drones to monitor activities like large barbecues or sporting events.

“This is why we are very concerned,” Bennett said. “So think about you have a picnic in the park. Or think about a basketball game, you have 100 people playing people in the park. You’re going to use a drone for that? Every public gathering?”

Williams has told reporters the drones could bring Illinois closer to becoming a “police state.”

Civil liberties groups are worried that drones, like other police cameras, could be equipped with facial recognition technology, which scans crowds to see whether faces match images including booking photos from criminal arrests or even driver’s license photos. On a national level, the FBI’s FACE system contains more than 411 million faces, including 43 million images from Illinois driver’s license photos, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Advocates fear the software will be used to more closely monitor political activity if officials use the drones and software to make lists of those they believe to have attended the protests based on facial matches and other data like license plates.

But the software can be inaccurate because it attempts to match faces in the crowd with images taken in a well-controlled environment, privacy advocates said. The level of accuracy drops in the field—especially in dark environments. Hats, glasses, and clothing can also affect accuracy.

And a report by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law found the technology can be racially biased. After analyzing the top three facial recognition algorithms, researchers found that “all three of the algorithms were 5 to 10 percent less accurate on African Americans than Caucasians.” Furthermore, “a similar decline surfaced for females as compared to males and younger subjects as compared to older subjects.”

“There are tremendous accuracy problems with facial recognition technology,” said Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group.

“There is mass inaccuracy—specifically, in addition to First Amendment problems, you have a massive Fifth Amendment problem because of erroneous identifications,” Schwartz said.

For these reasons, “[the] Electronic Frontier Foundation opposes any amendment [that would allow spying] on crowds including protesters where there is no warrant and no emergency. It deters people from protesting.”

The National Lawyers Guild, the Uptown People’s Law Center, and a group of law students at the University of Chicago also oppose the legislation. The guild points to the Chicago Police Department’s history of monitoring dissidents including #BlackLivesMatter protesters.

“The Chicago Police Department’s long history of violating the rights of protesters is well known and includes unlawful surveillance and targeted abuse of people working to make this a more just city for our most marginalized residents,” a statement on the guild’s website says. “Chicago police violence as exemplified by the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the murder of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in 1969 continues today.”

As recently as 2015, Chicago police were using social media monitoring for keywords like “JusticeForMikeBrown” and “#ICantBreathe,” as well as monitoring individual activists. An investigation by the Reader revealed that money for CPD surveillance equipment was coming from civil forfeitures.

Currently the Chicago Police Department does not have a data retention policy for how long images gathered through facial recognition technology are kept. Axion—formerly known as Taser, which supplies the body cameras worn by CPD—reportedly plans to incorporate real-time facial recognition technology into its products.

But privacy advocates are ready for anything this week as the legislature looks to possibly wrap up its session by May 31. v

Contributing: AP.

Freddy Martinez, of the southwest side, is a visiting fellow with the Freedom of the Press Foundation in San Francisco.