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Meet the ‘Drone Vigilante’ Who Spies on Sex Workers

Is Brian Bates just a good citizen, or a harmful menace?

by Jordan Pearson
Apr 4 2016, 6:59pm

Image from Bates's drone-shot footage. Screengrab: YouTube

For decades, Brian Bates has walked the streets of Oklahoma City, camcorder in hand, filming sex workers and their johns and then uploading the footage to his website.

Now, he uses a drone.

Fittingly, Bates' branding has shifted from "video vigilante" to "drone vigilante," at least according to media covering his latest exploit: a 27-year-old woman named Amanda Zolicoffer was sentenced to a year in state prison, the BBC reported, after he uploaded a drone-captured video of her having sex with a 75-year-old man named Douglas Blansett to his site. He also handed the video over to the police. On his site, Bates wrote that it was an "historic moment," since it was his first time uploading drone footage to his site.

Bates' use of drones makes him a living nightmare for critics who worry that drones are really just a low-cost tool for DIY surveillance. Drones in the US must be registered with the FAA, the federal regulator that manages all airspace. Some states, like Oklahoma, have considered legislation that goes far above these federal guidelines, however—a bill proposed in 2015 would have made it legal for people to shoot down a drone flying above their private property.

But Bates's actions can also be criticized for another reason: although his website states that he's in it to expose the johns and pimps who engage with sex workers, Zolicoffer's case shows that it's the women who sometimes bear the brunt of the consequences of Bates' vigilantism. A statement that bookends many of his videos notes that he apparently supports decriminalizing "100 percent consensual, private, and unorganized prostitution."

Since the idea of a homegrown vigilante wandering the streets of America with a drone seems more than a little dystopian, I called up Bates to grill him about the ethics of using drones to jail sex workers.

Bates, in an undated photograph. Photo: JohnTV.com

Motherboard: Have drones made your practice easier?
Brian Bates:
I wouldn't say it makes it easier, because it comes with a completely different set of criminal and civil liabilities. If we look at this particular instance, I launched it under very specific circumstances. [Zolicoffer and Blansett] were on private property that I had permission to be on and they didn't—it was a property that the owner wanted to discourage the criminal activity there. It was fairly open, no other pedestrians or obstacles around, but more importantly I was familiar with the young woman who was prostituting that day.

For whatever reason—I think because she realized I was out on the street—she appeared to have a pimp with her that day. It was safer to use a drone than walk up to the vehicle.

You say that you're "exposing" the johns and pimps—do you at all regret that your drone footage played a part in a sex worker, Zolicoffer, being sentenced to a year in prison?
No. People are responsible for their actions. She knows the rules, she knows me, and she knows that if she's caught then she's going to jail. It's unfortunate. I wish that, in my area, we had more to offer people that engage in street prostitution. I'm just a citizen. I don't really have the option to do anything except for public exposure and trying to move the social conscience and dialogue about the problem, and my videos do that. Unfortunately, when I turn one of my videos in [to police], I can't say, "Prosecute the john, don't prosecute the prostitute."

Have any other women been jailed or gone to court as a result of your videos?
Well, with virtually every video that I file, if there are charges filed, then an arrest warrant will be issued and they will be arrested. How long they sit in jail depends on how quickly they make bond. But have some people been sentenced to jail on prostitution? Nobody has done time that I am aware of solely based on my videos. It has to be a combination: maybe they were also dealing drugs, or were in violation of probation.

Bates used a DJI Phantom II (pictured) to take his footage. Bates said he's been flying drones for five or six years. Image: Flickr/Walter

Some might argue that you're putting women—who may even be engaging in sex work voluntarily, and who are already unduly criminalized—in even more danger by sending them through an unfriendly court system. How do you respond to that criticism?
I hear that criticism a lot, and a I universally hear it from people who don't live in my area, don't know any of these women who they're applying these Lifetime movie script lies to. I've been doing this for 20 years. I know many of the women who do this. My website has dozens—in my archives I have more than 50—interviews with women on the street telling their stories. I don't get any backlash.

My efforts have gone through many incarnations, and at one time, I would not post the face of the female, I wouldn't post her name, and I wouldn't post any information. [But] many times, family members get in touch with me because they've lost touch with this person and are trying to locate them. Sometimes, law enforcement will say that it's a runaway that they've been trying to locate. I just found that there was no reason to maintain their anonymity.

A large concern with drones has obviously been this idea of privacy. What would you say to those who might accuse you of unduly violating someone's privacy?
One, they need to understand what the law is. It's not a violation of privacy the way I use my drone. There's also fear-mongering, and with drones that's very misplaced. If you're in a park, and a drone is close enough to identify you, you're going to hear it. Someone could be in a house however many yards away and use a telephoto lens and zoom in on you and you'd never know it. People are afraid of the flavor of the day, and today people are afraid of drones.

Would you be pleased to hear that others are using their drones to police their neighborhoods?
My blanket answer is no. Because drones are new, and people don't have a lot of experience. I have hundreds of hours of experience flying my drone recreationally. I don't recommend anyone do the activism that I do, because it's dangerous when I run up to a car and open the door and I'm standing there with a camera. But unfortunately people are going to take drones and do things with them in a reckless manner and give drones a bad name. I think they have a place for people—neighborhood watch, and things like that—but how best to use it, that's not for me to decide.

I can only say that, in the way that I've used my drone, it would be very difficult for someone to say that anything was done incorrectly and illegally.

Will you be using your drone more often for this?
It's with me, it's always in my car, and I've only launched it one more time since capturing [the Zolicoffer] footage. That time, I realized it wasn't safe to use the drone and I went by foot again.

So, yes?
If all the conditions are right, then I will absolutely use it again. I don't have a crystal ball, but yes, I would.

This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.

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