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Drones are wildly popular on the battlefield. Now they can claim victory elsewhere. The use of drones within U.S. borders — in car chases, to monitor wildfires, or for simple surveillance — is uniting political parties and people more often at odds.
Their concern: The widespread use of drones among civilians represents a deep and dangerous intrusion into American life.
“What we used to know as privacy is finished,” said John Whitehead, a constitutional scholar and president of Virginia-based Rutherford Institute. “Big Brother is here to stay.”
Both the progressive American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Rutherford Institute cheer legislative efforts to place strict limits on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. And prodded by privacy groups, state lawmakers nationwide — Republicans and Democrats alike — have launched an all-out offensive against the unmanned aerial vehicles.
In at least 13 states, lawmakers this year will examine bills to place strict limits on how government entities can deploy drones. No state has embedded such regulations into law.
Drones are already everywhere — executing search-and-rescue missions, tracking cattle rustlers, or monitoring wildfires with minimal cost and little risk of loss of life.
The Federal Aviation Administration listed 345 active drone licenses as of November 2012. Congress has directed the federal department to streamline the approval process. Starting in 2015, commercial entities — think entertainment news outlet TMZ — will have easy access to drone permits.
Analysts believe as many as 30,000 drones will populate American skies by 2020.
Canyon County, Idaho, already has one, a camera-equipped Draganflyer X-6 it bought for $33,400 with federal grant money. About a year ago, Mesa County, Colorado, used $14,000 to purchase its drone, a 4-foot-long, 9-pound plane that can maintain flight for about an hour. The Seattle Police Department spent $41,000 in August for its Draganflyer X-6.
With the booming interest in the myriad uses of UAVs comes nervous anxiety about the creep of the surveillance state.
And that’s where state lawmakers and their allies come in.
The Drone War Begins
In January, members of Montana’s Senate Judiciary Committee assembled in the Capitol in Helena to hear testimony on Senate Bill 150, a measure that would place tight restrictions on UAVs in the Treasure State. If passed, the law would prevent officials from using evidence obtained via drones and would block the state or local governments from owning weaponized UAVs. The law would allow victims of drone overreach to sue offending parties personally and professionally.
Montana state Sen. Robyn Driscoll, a Democrat, worries about police “fishing expeditions” powered by drone technology.
While conceding that privacy rights are critical, the bill’s opponents say it would unnecessarily limit law enforcement.
“That’s technology that I don’t think should be absolutely banned,” said Larry Epstein, a lobbyist for three powerful interest groups ardently opposed to Driscoll’s bill.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, also the head of the Montana Association of Police Chiefs, said Montana legislators are acting too swiftly on drones.
“At this point, it’s sort of putting the cart before the horse,” Muir warned, pointing out that no local law enforcement agencies in Montana own or deploy drones.
Muir, too, recognizes the concerns shown by privacy advocates.
“We understand the privacy issue at play with this technology and we are open to discussion on how it might be used,” he said.
Driscoll’s bill likely edges out others as the most forceful of the anti-drone legislation hitting state legislatures this year. Others, like Florida state Sen. Joe Negron’s proposal, reveal similar values, but boast more exemptions.
Negron, a Republican, opposes certain drone uses in Florida.
Negron’s bill would prevent law enforcement agencies from using drones to collect evidence without first obtaining a warrant from a judge. Law enforcement agencies also could use drones to counter imminent terrorist attacks or prevent harm from coming to life or property under “particular circumstances.”
United in Opposition — Sort Of
“We believe we need a system of rules so people can use drones for legitimate purposes,” said Allie Bohm, a policy strategist in the ACLU New York office.
Bohm said there’s no coordinated game plan on the ACLU’s part to push anti-drone bills, but the organization stands at the ready to aid anyone’s effort to push the legislation.
Passage of these laws might come down to differing language of the Driscoll and Negron bills. Bohm and the ACLU, along with Epstein, agree that law enforcement officials should obtain judge-approved search warrants before deploying drones for criminal investigations, as allowed in Negron’s bill.
Bohm says drones can be useful for Americans, but governments nationwide should place strict limits on the unmanned crafts.
“That’s how the world of law enforcement works,” Epstein said. “We understand that.”
“Requiring a warrant is incredibly stupid,” barked Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. “It won’t work.”
Drones buzzing quietly overhead, Whitehead warned, will collect loads of information, including license plate numbers, Wi-Fi data, and secret passwords. Equipped with right components, they’ll peek through walls, which he believes bypasses the need for warrants.
Whitehead spent the past two years researching drones, their past, present, and, most importantly, their future. During his study, he authored model legislation that he sent to the 50 state legislatures.
“There will be drones everywhere,” he said. “There’s too much money to be made.”
Analysts project the drone industry, now worth $5.9 billion annually, will more than double to $11.3 billion by 2020. Whitehead envisions domestic drones equipped with everything from high-powered cameras with facial recognition technology to rubber bullets and sound cannons to break up political rallies or assemblies.
Whitehead quickly dismissed the idea that states can limit drone use, other than bar from court evidence gathered by the aerial vehicles. While other parties in this nation debate about the proper role of drones in civil society seek compromise, Whitehead will not.
Drones will be everywhere, Whitehead warns, and we must keep the data they collect out of court.
“Warrants are incredibly easy to get,” he scoffed. “The judges go along with the police.”
The only viable path to limiting drones in America, Whitehead said, is to keep their findings out of court.
A Hopeful Industry
As governments across the land embrace Big Brother and the perpetual surveillance state, aviation-related businesses prepare for a profitable era, but also for the challenges inherent to bringing such a potentially dangerous product to market.
The industry, nearly in lock step with those advocating against the drone regulation proposals, stands unified under a central banner — the glorious benefits they believe the unmanned aircrafts will bring to the human experience.
Kevin Lauscher, a police and industrial sales specialist for Draganfly Innovations, counseled lawmakers considering bans to act in the best interest of lifesaving efforts.
“We hope that in the discussions that should be held prior to the passing of any bill, they will look at all aspects of use of unmanned systems and the benefits that are provided,” Lauscher wrote in an email to Watchdog.org last month.
Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group dedicated to promoting drones worldwide, warned, like Lauscher, that hasty action by state lawmakers could prove extremely dangerous.
“There is no reason we cannot advance the remarkable benefits of unmanned aircraft technology while also protecting the rights of individual Americans.”
Epstein applauded all efforts to define the uses and restriction on drones, a debate he said America must have.