A hot potato: Look! Up in the Sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's… a police drone spying on our backyard barbecue? For New York City residents celebrating the Labor Day holiday this weekend, this could be a very real scenario.

The New York City police department has announced plans to put drones in the sky this holiday weekend to monitor backyard parties that could get out of hand.

"If a caller states there's a large crowd, a large party in a backyard, we're going to be utilizing our assets to go up and go check on the party," said assistant NYPD Commissioner Kaz Daughtry at a recent press conference.

Naturally, the admission attracted the attention of privacy and civil liberties advocates who questioned if the department's plans violate existing laws governing surveillance in the area.

"Deploying drones in this way is a sci-fi inspired scenario," said Daniel Schwarz, a technology and privacy strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union. It is a troubling announcement, Schwarz added, that flies in the face of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act.

In its unmanned aircraft systems (UAS): Impact and use policy from 2021, the NYC police department said drones would not be used in areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without a search warrant, except in exigent circumstances. Are backyard parties really all that pressing?

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), shared similar sentiments. "One of the biggest concerns with the rush to roll out new forms of aerial surveillance is how few protections we have against seeing these cameras aimed at our backyards or even our bedrooms," Cahn noted.

As the Associated Press highlights, drone use by NYC police has increased exponentially this year. City data reveals that drones were used for public safety or emergencies just four times in 2022. So far this year, they have been deployed 124 times, and that figure is sure to rise over the looming holiday weekend.

The issue is not limited to New York City, either. According to a July 2023 report from the ACLU, more than 1,400 police departments across the US are already using drones. Most are not allowed to operate drones beyond their visual line of sight although some departments have filed for and been granted special exemptions, which allow them to carry out drones-as-first-responder flights.

Image credit: Adika Budiman, Mario Cuadros