Robocops, drones, and the changing nature of law enforcement: How and when to regulate?

July 11, 2017

Recently, Dubai’s police force announced that by the end of the year it will have mini autonomous police cars that feature facial recognition technology, thermal imaging, and built-in drones patrolling the streets. As The Washington Post reports, the vehicles will be able to read licence plates, and record and track suspects, while the built-in drones can be deployed in areas not accessible by vehicles. The vehicles can navigate using their own algorithms, but the Dubai police will also be able to control them remotely.

Dubai is an early adopter of emerging technologies in policing. A month ago, it announced that a robot had joined police ranks. The life-sized robot can shake hands and interact with humans. Like the robocar, it is equipped with surveillance technology, such as cameras and facial recognition software. The emirate hopes to have robots make up 25 percent of its police force by 2030.

Other police forces around the world are adopting new technologies or adapting already existing ones in novel ways. Last year, the Dallas police used a remotely controlled bomb-disposal robot to kill a sniper—the first time a robot was used to kill.

The use of robots in police actions has been rare—so far. Thus, the need to regulate such use might not be pressing. A more immediate concern relates to the capability of robots and other new technologies to place societies under constant surveillance.


Drones have become commonplace tools for the police and other public safety services, such as firefighters and medical services. The market in drones for public safety is expected to reach  $1.15-billion by 2022, with the broader market for drones approaching $22-billion. Drones appeal to police because they lower the costs of patrolling and surveillance, and provide immediate information that allows for quicker responses.

Critics worry about civil liberties and the rights of individuals, especially vulnerable populations such as migrants. In Europe, police services have used drones to track migrants trying to cross the border between Italy and France. Biometrics have been used in Europe for several years to track refugee claimants.

Non-state actors are also using these new tracking devices. While most documented cases are in war zones, criminals are using the technology, too—sometimes to monitor the police! In June 2017, an international drug syndicate unsuccessfully attempted to monitor the Australian police.

The use of these technologies by new populations raises important questions for law enforcement agencies. How should police respond? Is more surveillance the answer? How are police to balance effective response with the rights of ordinary citizens?


There are no robocars or robotic policeman on Canada’s streets, but police across the country are using drones and surveillance technologies. Police use of the mobile device identifier has gained a great deal of attention over the past year. This technology gathers information from all mobile devices in a given area, although briefly and only from certain providers.

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Communications Commission work together to oversee the use of such technology by the different forces. In Canada, there is no federal oversight of local police use.

Canada’s new defence policy recognizes that an adequate response to the “rapid evolution of technology” requires both international and domestic legal and governance mechanisms. As Canada seeks to reform its national security legislation, we should not forget that a broader discussion on emerging technologies and policing is needed.

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