from the extra-eyes-in-the-skies dept
Private drones are the new CCTV. As Cyrus Farivar words it for Ars Technica, the age of sousveillance is upon us.
An Oklahoma man has received the distinction of being the first "john" in the state to be criminally prosecuted and arrested after being caught in the act by a drone. Local police records show Douglas Blansett, 75, was arrested and released on Thursday. That's according to local anti-prostitution Oklahoma City-based activist and private investigator Brian Bates, who has run JohnTV.com for years, a collection of videos of suspected sex workers and their johns.This shows what's possible with surveillance equipment d/b/a hobbyist technology. Not that Bates is your average hobbyist. Bates, as noted above, is both a prostitution-focused "activist" and a salesman -- albeit one that sells recordings of sex acts to news agencies or whoever else is willing to license the footage. So, much like law enforcement, Bates profits from criminalized acts of consenting behavior between adults.
It was Bates' drone that earlier this year took video of what he believed was a man picking up a woman named Amanda Zolicoffer that he described as a "known prostitute." Both Blansett and Zolicoffer now face a misdemeanor charge of "engaging in an act of lewdness."
Bates and his drone followed a vehicle after noticing the driver had picked up a prostitute. The drone was deployed because a third vehicle also trailed the "couple," presumably belonging to the prostitute's pimp. Bates understandably felt his camera wouldn't be welcomed by the pimp, so he deployed his drone and the rest is recorded history.
It should be noted, Bates -- like other purveyors of "reality" programming -- apparently felt reality just wasn't interesting enough. A decade ago, he was arrested for felony pandering (a charge normally reserved for pimps) and a misdemeanor count of "aiding in prostitution."
According to the below Oklahoma City Police Department report, Brian Bates, 34, orchestrated the public encounters so he could peddle the resulting videotape to media outlets (some of Bates's surveillance tapes are offered for sale on his web site).It also should be noted the charges may have not been entirely legitimate. Maggie McNeill -- an actual activist and sex worker advocate -- noted that the arrest may have stemmed from a "long-running" feud between Bates and a local district attorney.
[I]f a john was a "regular," Bates asked prostitutes to give "specific signals" so he would know not to bother rolling tape. Investigators also noted that, like any good auteur, Bates "gave direction to the prostitutes on how to complete the act with a high probability of success," as well as tips on how to spot an undercover cop.
That being said, there's nothing stopping this sort of thing from happening in the future and it's likely it won't just be private drone owners involved. If the act occurs in public, there's no way to claim any sort of invasion of privacy, especially when tied to a criminal act. Plenty of police departments are utilizing their own drones for surveillance. From a cost effectiveness perspective, flying drones to net misdemeanor charges doesn't make much sense. But all it takes is a little political pressure to trigger a reassessment of priorities.
Bates claims he's only targeting the "worst" kind of prostitution and makes a small nod towards privacy. But it's a meaningless gesture.
Bates said he focuses his efforts on “street, forced and organized prostitution,” not people who willfully engage in the profession behind closed doors.More honestly, he's taking the secure legal route -- acts captured in public areas. If Bates could put a camera behind closed doors with minimal legal liability, I'm sure he would. So, his white knighting is borne of legal conveniences, not some genuine concern for supposedly-victimized prostitutes. (See also: the details of his arrest for pandering, which alleged Bates worked with prostitutes to ensure only the best -- and most sellable -- footage was captured.)
“I'm only dealing with people who are literally out there out of desperation,” he said. “Either because a pimp's making them do it or because an addiction is making them do it. Nobody's making the john do it.”
Whether or not you agree with Bates' "vigilantism," the implications are clear: public areas are open to "surveillance" by everyone, not just law enforcement. Private drones can easily act as souped-up Neighborhood Watch programs. As the barrier to entry continues to drop, we can expect more recordings from our friends and neighbors to fill in the "gaps" in law enforcement "coverage."