Did the Internet just fall for a massive drone hoax?

If you’ve been on Twitter today, you’ve probably seen it promoted as fact that surveillance drones have been sent into operation over Los Angeles as part of the multi-state manhunt for former cop Christopher Dorner alleged to be on a killing spree. The worst articles imply that the drones are armed and the government has authorized Dorner’s death, using language that’s ambiguous to the point of being deceptive, which is almost certainly untrue. But a closer look at the articles raises another concern: all of the reports are citing a single article which is flawed at best, and at worst may even be fabricated. Are the police using a drone at all?

Sunday Morning, the UK publication “Express” published an article about the manhunt, and provided its drone claims, with its main claim coming from an anonymous source within the Los Angeles police department. The relevant facts presented in the article are:

  • “Dorner has become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil.”
  • “A senior police source said: ‘The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.’”
  • Riverside PD Chief Sergio Diaz was asked directly about drones, and responded “We are using all the tools at our disposal.”
  • Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Ralph DeSio confirmed the drone use, and provided the quote: “This agency has been at the forefront of domestic use of drones by law enforcement. That’s all I can say at the moment.”

These claims have been cited in dozens or hundreds of subsequent articles, beginning with Gizmodo. But each of these claims is suspect, and taken collectively I believe they are false. Taking a look at each:

“The first human target”

That Dorner would be the first human target for drone surveillance on US soil is true only if you take a very particular, and unusual, read on some of the words. If there are drones tracking him, he is at least the second case on US soil, after a 2011 arrest based on drone evidence in North Dakota. In that case, as is alleged in this case, the drones were Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 “Reaper” drones (a model previously known as “Predator B”). In that case, the suspects’ general location was known, and the drone was used to determine their specific location on a single property, and whether they were armed or not. If that makes them ineligible to be the “first human target[s] for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil”, it’s not clear how.

Senior police source on thermal imaging

It’s not clear why this source would be attributed anonymously, or where this quote comes from. Without a name or the circumstances of its delivery, it’s difficult or impossible to verify the quote. And how did a tiny paper in the United Kingdom get such a juicy source more than 10,000 miles away in the Los Angeles police department?

Chief Sergio Diaz “using all the tools” at his disposal

If Chief Sergio Diaz said that the task force is using all the tools at its disposal to hunt down Dorning, it’s likely he said it at a press conference on Thursday morning, February 7, 2013. If so, it’s not clear why the line didn’t get more attention. An online student-run newspaper from the University of Southern California — “Neon Tommy” — attributes the quote to him in an article published on the 7th. However, that article is explicitly about LAPD’s declining to state whether drones are being used — not presented as evidence that they’re in use.

What’s more, this video from the press conference does not appear to include that question or response, and despite the obvious newsworthiness of such a quote, it doesn’t show up in other publications.

CBP confirmation and spokesman quote

If CBP spokesman Ralph DeSio did confirm drone usage, it’s not clear how or where he did so. The same Neon Tommy article mentioned above cites Ralph DeSio as the source for information about where CPB drones are deployed. Curiously, the very next quote in that article is identical to what Express alleged DeSio to have said: “The agency has been on the forefront of domestic use of drones by law enforcement.” However, that quote is attributed — and linked — to an article by the investigative reporting group California Watch. Did a hasty read of the Neon Tommy article lead to a bad attribution in the Express? Unfortunately, the addition of the next sentence, “That’s all I can say at the moment” gives the impression of unclean hands.

Yes, it’s possible that Express contacted Ralph DeSio over the weekend, got the confirmation, and then a quote from him that is out-of-character for the organization and plagiarized from a California Watch piece. But that seems unlikely.

Sorting out loose ends

In a rush to clarify that CPB drones aren’t in fact armed, and teasing out information on whether the drones in question were, say, launched from the a nearby Air Force Base that has recently tested search-and-rescue flights, there are some deeper unanswered questions.

The story is plausible. The Department of Homeland Security (CPB’s parent agency) does loan out drones to police agencies, and they’ve kept the terms of such deals almost completely secret. EFF is currently suing DHS to find more information about that program. But in this case, the factual support isn’t there.

Whether or not these drones are being used in this manhunt, and whether or not they’re armed (they’re not), there is real cause for concern. A secret aerial surveillance program wherein federal agencies loan military technology to local police forces raises serious questions and we should demand to know more. The expansion of warrantless surveillance to unarmed vehicles with capabilities that exceed any helicopter or light plane currently in operation is also a problem. The general militarization of police is well-documented and alarming, as is the shift in rhetoric and actions in the Dorner case from capture-and-try to capture-and-kill.

But we do a disservice to our efforts at resolving these important issues when we resort to untruths or conspiracy theories.