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Domestic drones: Coming soon over a home near you?

Eric Gay / AP

A Predator B unmanned aircraft lands after a mission at the Naval Air Station, Tuesday, Nov. 8, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing new rules that could make it easier for law enforcement agencies to use drone aircraft in the U.S., raising concerns about privacy at a time when the aircraft are already conducting surveillance missions in some parts of the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union released a report Thursday demanding better protections against a surveillance society, “in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”

“Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” warns the ACLU report, "Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft."


The report follows a weekend story by the Los Angeles Times that detailed how the unmanned aircraft are being used in domestic law enforcement cases, and not just along the country’s borders to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers as was originally authorized by Congress in 2005.

 

The Times said a North Dakota county sheriff asked federal authorities to employ a drone for surveillance in a standoff with three men on a farm June 23, resulting in the first known arrest of U.S. citizens involving the spy planes in a domestic case.

Since then, the Times said, two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base have flown at least two dozen surveillance flights for local police. The Times reported the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have also used drones in domestic investigations.

Next month, the FAA is expected to issue proposed rules that the ACLU warns could expand their use by domestic law enforcement agencies.

The FAA declined comment for this story but in a recent fact sheet acknowledged the growing interest by law enforcement in unmanned aircraft.

“The FAA is working with urban police departments in major metropolitan areas and national public safety organizations on test programs involving unmanned aircraft,” the FAA statement said. “The goal is to help identify the challenges that UAS (umanned aircraft systems) will bring into this environment and what type of operations law enforcement can safely perform.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has supported expanding the use of domestic drones along the border with Mexico. In October, the Sheriff's Department in Montgomery County, north of Houston, bought a $300,000 ShadowHawk drone from Vanguard Defense industries using federal homeland security grant funds.

“It's an exciting piece of equipment for us," Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the sheriff's office told the Houston Chronicle at the time. "We envision a lot of its uses primarily in the realm of public safety -- looking at recovery of lost individuals and being able to utilize it for fire issues."

McDaniel said the aircraft would not be used to track suspects’ vehicles but may provide surveillance for officers serving warrants.

M. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, says widespread use of drones domestically seems inevitable, particularly since they are an efficient and cost-effective alternative to helicopter and airplanes.

“Drones are capable of finding or following a specific person,” he writes in a recent article in the Stanford Law Review. “They can fly patterns in search of suspicious activities or hover over a location in wait. Some are as small as birds or insects, others as big as blimps. In addition to high-resolution cameras and microphones, drones can be equipped with thermal imaging and the capacity to intercept wireless communications.”

In addition to privacy concerns, Calo said, drones also raise safety and security issues, particularly because they can crash and their guidance systems can be hacked. He cited the case of the CIA drone recently lost in Iran. The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday reported a claim by an Iranian engineer that the Iranians were able to exploit a navigational weakness in the drone’s technology to make it land in Iran.

Catherine Crump, the ACLU report’s co-author and staff attorney with the Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said the organization isn’t against the use of all domestic drones but rather wants to make privacy a central issue as the technology becomes more available.

"We have a clear opportunity to get ahead of the game,” she said.

Some of the ACLU’s recommendations include not deploying drones unless there is certainty that they will collect evidence of a specific crime. If a drone will intrude on reasonable privacy expectations, a warrant should be required, the ACLU said. The report also calls for restrictions on retaining images of identifiable people, as well as an open process for developing policies on how drones will be used.

“Historically, the fact that manned helicopters and airplanes are expensive has imposed a natural limit on aerial surveillance. But the prospect of cheap, flying video surveillance cameras will likely open the floodgates,” said Jay Stanley, the report’s other co-author and senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.

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