*note: class discussion and Alden’s presentation covered the commercial aspects of drone use (Google Street view for example), so for this blog entry, I will focus on the government side of things*
Last week, President Obama signed into law HR 658, which devotes resources to modernizing air traffic and, controversially includes provisions to allow more widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, so-called drones) by both private and government entities. According to the New York Times, this law will:
“allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors — from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films. Local police and emergency services will also be freer to send up their own drones.”
Drones are already used extensively by the US government in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, in the domestic “war on drugs”, and now in Yemen and Somalia. The legality of drone usage has been debated internationally with a decision yet to be reached, and it has remained a highly contentious issue with strong opinions on both sides. Domestically, the Department of Homeland Security has admitted to using drones for surveillance but the scope of these actions has not been revealed. Likewise, a small number of law enforcement agencies have already used unmanned drones to assist with the surveillance and location of criminal suspects, as was the case with the first “drone-assisted arrest” documented in North Dakota.
Until the enactment of HR 658, many barriers hindered the widespread use of drones, including the difficulty faced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in allowing the drones into domestic airspace. According to the NY Times, “now the FAA must allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet.” For reference, 4 pounds is about the size of a small dog, which means the drones, combined with their low noise level, are capable of stealth.
Advocates of expanded domestic drone use cite a variety of ways in which the UAVs contribute to better security and more effective policing, including:
- The ability to go over ground that may otherwise be dangerous or cumbersome to send personnel into. For example, in the North Dakota arrest the open plain area of North Dakota where the suspects were located would have taken too long to search manually.
- As they are able to stay aloft for long periods of time, drones may continue to track targets of interest—including fugitives, missing children, and potential security threads—over long periods of time and across wide areas
According to Randy McDaniel, a sheriff in Texas who uses this technology, “we don’t spy on people…we worry about criminal elements,” which seems to reflect the wider justification of the old argument, “if you’re not doing anything wrong why are you worried?”
The ACLU and EFF are certainly concerned about surveillance drones; the ACLU released a report in December issuing guidance to the government on drone use and the EFF filed suit against the Department of Transportation to request additional data on the drones. Likewise outraged, the media has likened this bill to the next coming of Big Brother, just a step on our way to a surveillance nation where the movements and actions of every citizen are monitored. This law raises serious concerns about citizen privacy in the face of increased government intervention:
- What happens to data collected pertaining to citizens, which may be sensitive or private in nature—is it stored forever?
- Are warrants needed or used?
- What are the limits of this technology?
According to privacy scholar Ryan Calo as quoted in the New York Times, “as privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage;” the use of surveillance drones does not violate 4th amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Still, there seems to me to be something inherently wrong with a government that, as the ACLU phrases it, performs a “routine aerial surveillance of American life”—especially when the driving force behind the creation of this law was the drone manufacturing industry. Given the current US emphasis on security over privacy, it’s hard to trust that these surveillance drones won’t be exploited. We seem to have lost sight of Brandeis’s “right to be let alone,” sacrificing privacy for security.
Despite strong objections, however, this law has already passed and it seems unlikely that anything will be done to change it amidst a political climate obsessed with Security Theater. The best we can likely hope to do is to control the fallout. Ultimately, the biggest problem with this law is that there are no clear guidelines on the law enforcement procedures centered on the use of surveillance drones. In the words of the ACLU, “it’s crucial that we place clear limits on the use of drones to collect information about citizens.” This is a perfect example of the law being outpaced by the technology, and until the government is able to answer these questions and create a transparent and clear process, the use of these drones for surveillance must be restricted to preserve the already-threatened protection of privacy.