Syracuse Resists Drone Encroachment

Two Faces of Drones: Surveillance

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Ann Tiffany

“The drones are coming! The drones are coming!” - Paul Revere (updated)

While we were cheering on the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent resisters participating in the “Arab Spring,” leaders in those countries must have been quaking in their boots. Given the growing disparity of income and the shrinking middle class leading to the increasing restlessness of the 99%, the 1% in the US also must have such shivers. Hence the increased surveillance of our streets, the NSA prying and spying, the militarization of police departments across the country and the very rapid move towards domestic surveillance drones. 

In 2012 Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act. This act requires the FAA to provide enabling regulations integrating drones into the national airspace by 2015. Already the FAA has given about 350 permits to universities, local police departments, and corporations for drone flights below 400 feet.


This is an example of the type of surveillance
drone police forces are likely to get hold of if
communities do not pre-empt their acquisition.

Enter counter-legislation initiatives to address a variety of issues that arise as drones begin to crowd our global, national, state and local skies. Upstate Drone Action continues to expose Hancock Air Base drone war crime in Afghanistan through civil resistance and demonstrations at the base. SPC works to educate us about the two faces of reaper surveillance drones which the FAA now permits to “train” over Syracuse.


In the summer of 2012, an SPC anti-drone/anti-war program sub-committee met at John Brule’s to draft an Ordinance to submit to the Syracuse Common Council. We want regulations in place regarding privacy, data collection disclosure, as well as licensing and operating, before police agencies move to deploy their own drones over Syracuse. We want enforcement regulations that specify the sanctions if drone operators violate First and Fourth amendment rights.

Our proposed Ordinance requires a warrant for any drone surveillance mission over Syracuse. Unregulated and unwarranted surveillance drones threaten: freedom of association and assembly (First Amendment); invasion of individual privacy (Fourth Amendment); and community safety (drones are vulnerable to hacking and have a high accident rate).

As drone technology (e.g. facial recognition, lasers, thermal imaging, crowd control, weaponization, etc.) advances, and as local police departments edge towards further militarization, mission creep’s slippery slope keeps getting steeper.

We began a petition drive at SPC’s 2012 Plowshares Craftsfair and at various religious and community events. We now have over 800 signatures. Our Ordinance sub-committee, having written a first draft, met with three supportive city Councilors— Jean Kessner, Lance Denno, and Nader Maroun. We also met with three other Councilors—Jake Barrett, Bob Dougherty, and Khalid Bey. Each appeared to be supportive, as was Mayor Miner when we met with her. The Councilors we did not meet with may well support surveillance efforts generally.

Our draft was given to the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee which sent it to the City’s Corporation Council for legal vetting. Reluctantly bowing to political realities, we accepted the Corporation Council’s and the Mayor’s strong request that this document be a non-binding Resolution (as opposed to an Ordinance).

At the Public Safety Committee’s first drone study session on June 27, Deb Warner, Center State Vice President for Public Policy and Opportunity, sat at the committee’s table and spoke for NUAIR (Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance). NUAIR is an alliance of private industry, academic institutions, and military operations and bases lobbying to have Upstate New York and Massachusetts designated as a national drone research and testing region. Six such regions are planned throughout the US to develop the technology and expedite the integration of commercial and military drones into civilian airspace.

NUAIR argues that such a designation will result in many permanent jobs for the region; it will certainly be lucrative for the multi-billion dollar drone industry. After Ms. Warner’s 20-minute talk, SPC and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) were allowed several minutes to advocate for our Resolution mandating warrants for surveillance drones. Unexpectedly, Chairman Jake Barrett chose to “pull” the Resolution and return it to the Corporation Council for redrafting.

Since that study session SPC, NUAIR, Jean Kessner and NYCLU’s Barrie Gewanter, have met informally to generate mutually acceptable Resolution language.

However our initiative turns out, drones will surely be increasing their presence here. For me, the US “homeland” is now on a continuum somewhere between Huxley’s Brave New World and the recent Matt Damon film Elysium (worth seeing despite its violence). Military analyst Peter Singer says drone technology is currently where the Wright Brothers’ plane was in 1903.

As the amoral drone robots invade the sky, will we succumb to the new 1984 or will we resist?


Ann is active with SPC and Upstate Drone Action.