Drones Over America – Are They Spying on You?

By Brad Knickerbocker

Thousands of drones could be routinely flying over the United States within the next 10 years. They can help with law enforcement and border control, but they also raise questions about invasion of privacy.


Big Brother on the Wing

Most Americans have gotten used to regular news reports about military and CIA drones attacking terrorist suspects – including U.S. citizens – in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere abroad.

But picture thousands of drone aircraft buzzing around the United States – peering from the sky at breaches in border security, wildfires about to become major conflagrations, patches of marijuana grown illegally deep within national forests, or environmental scofflaws polluting the land, air, and water.

By some government estimates, as many as 30,000 drones could be part of intelligence gathering and law enforcement here in the U.S. within the next 10 years. Operated by agencies down to the local level, this would be in addition to the 110 current and planned drone activity sites run by the military services in 39 states, reported this week by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a nongovernment research project.

The presence of drones in the U.S. was brought home last week when some people thought they saw a UFO along the Capitol Beltway in Washington. In fact, it was a disc-shaped X-47B UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air System) being hauled from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland for testing.

Significant New Form of Surveillance

Civil libertarians warn that “unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life,” as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put it in a report last December.

“The technology is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful, interest in deploying drones among police departments is increasing, and our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” reported the ACLU. “In short, all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life – a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”

Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, highlights one potentially controversial part of U.S. Air Force policy regarding military drones flown over the U.S.

“Air Force Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations, exercise and training missions will not conduct nonconsensual surveillance on specifically identified U.S. persons, unless expressly approved by the Secretary of Defense, consistent with U.S. law and regulations,” according to an instruction on oversight of Air Force intelligence.

At the same time, the instruction states, “Collected imagery may incidentally include U.S. persons or private property without consent.”

“Mixed Feelings”

Americans have mixed feelings about pilotless drones flown over the U.S., according to a new Monmouth University Poll.

A large majority (80 percent) supports the idea of using drones to help with search and rescue missions; a substantial majority also supports using drones to track down runaway criminals (67 percent) and control illegal immigration along U.S. borders (64 percent).

But despite widespread support for certain domestic applications of drone technology, privacy issues are an obvious concern, the poll finds. For example, just 23 percent support using drones for such routine police activity as issuing speeding tickets while two-thirds oppose the idea.

“Specifically, 42 percent of Americans would be very concerned and 22 percent would be somewhat concerned about their own privacy if U.S. law enforcement started using unmanned drones with high tech surveillance cameras,” the poll report states.

Police State Tactics?

That’s increasingly the attitude on Capitol Hill as well.

“I do not want a drone monitoring where I go, what I do and for how long I do whatever it is that I’m doing,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky wrote on CNN’s website this week. “I do not want a nanny state watching over my every move. We should not be treated like criminals or terrorists while we are simply conducting our everyday lives. We should not have our rights infringed upon by unwarranted police-state tactics.”

Legislation introduced by Senator Paul – the “Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012” – would force police officials to obtain a warrant before using domestic drones.

“If the warrant is not obtained, this act would allow any person to sue the government,” Paul writes. “This act also specifies that no evidence obtained or collected in violation of this act can be admissible as evidence in a criminal, civil or regulatory action.”

A similar bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott (R) of Georgia is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R) of Nebraska wants to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from using drones to make sure farmers and ranchers comply with environmental regulations.

Still, the Federal Aviation Administration noted recently that it is “streamlining the process for public agencies to safely fly UAS in the nation’s airspace.” Φ

Brad Knickerbocker is a  staff writer and editor for the Christian Science Monitor. He spent six years as a U.S. Navy “tailhooker,” flying A-4 Skyhawk jets from aircraft carriers (including a combat tour in Vietnam).

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