Legal battles loom with use of drones

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Intelligence gathered by unmanned military drones significantly aided the mission of Navy Seal Team 6 when they stormed Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan last year. And military drones are now a critical tool for helping keep our troops as safe as possible in hostile regions of the world. The technology of unmanned drones developed by our military also has many civilian uses, but civilians are rapidly questioning our government’s right to have an “eye in the sky.”

The revelation by the Environmental Protection Agency last month that aerial surveillance flights have been used “for nearly a decade to verify compliance with environmental laws” stirred a controversy in cattle country that is not likely to subside anytime soon. That’s because EPA also acknowledged surveillance flights in Iowa in 2010 and Nebraska in 2011 to check on concentrated livestock-feeding operations. Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns questioned EPA’s legal authority for using such aerial surveillance, which brought a response from the EPA that claims, “Courts, including the Supreme Court, have found similar types of flights to be legal.”

Here’s predicting that the legal wrangling over aerial surveillance is far from over — especially since the technology of unmanned drones appears likely to soon produce spy crafts much smaller than the proverbial breadbox.

So, are drones fl own over the United States an invasion of citizen privacy or an effective and economical method to enforce our laws? Let the debate begin.

The first public survey about drone use (in what is sure to be one of many) was released last month by Monmouth University in New Jersey. And — maybe predictably — Americans seem to favor using the technology to catch other people doing wrong but not themselves. For instance, 64 percent of the folks surveyed by Monmouth said it would be OK to use drones to catch illegal aliens, but fewer than 25 percent said it would be alright to use drones to issue speeding tickets.

Just how polarizing an issue is this? Consider that just 80 percent of the people surveyed said using drones for rescue missions would be acceptable. In other words, even if people’s lives could be saved with the technology, 20 percent of Americans oppose the use of drones for rescue. And, just 67 percent favor using drones to locate criminals.

About two-thirds of Americans say they would be concerned about their privacy if U.S. law enforcement agencies began using drones with high-tech cameras.

It’s time to start being concerned. That’s because under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the Federal Aviation Administration is charged with developing a plan “for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.” The FAA has already authorized drone use for dozens of entities, including more than 20 universities, local police forces, the FBI, NASA and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy.

Privacy issues are of legitimate concern for citizens as the technology is set to be rapidly deployed, and privacy is apparently one of the few issues gaining bipartisan concern in Washington. In fact, there’s a Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), which recently wrote to the administrator of the FAA expressing numerous concerns. The congressmen noted the obvious benefits of using drones for “spotting wildfires and assessing natural disasters,” but underscored “there is also the potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections.”

Those concerns are echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned in February that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act would erode Americans’ privacy. ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said, “The deployment of drone technology domestically could easily lead to police fishing expeditions and invasive, all-encompassing surveillance that would seriously erode the privacy that we have always had as Americans.”

Stay tuned. Feedlot flyovers are just the tip of this giant legal iceberg.


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