Domestic drones could enhance surveillance but infringe on privacy

The Takeaway

Unmanned aerial vehicles may soon become a common fixture in American skies.

As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law by President Barack Obama in February, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to write new rules for expanding the use of U.S. airspace by domestic drones. Up until this point, drones were primarily operated by the military and homeland security forces. Hobbyists who were interested in building unmanned planes were carefully regulated. By next week, the administration will have to propose new practices to stimulate licensing for some government drones. 

John Villasenor, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of Electrical Engineering at UCLA, said the reduced regulations will help open the door for hobbyists to participate in drone technology advancement. 

“The hobbyist community with respect to drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, is extremely important. There is a significant, innovative, very active hobbyist community,” Villasenor said. “This is a fundamental change to aviation.”

Supporters of the measures think new fleets of drones will soon be able to assist in crime prevention, surveillance and other non-military purposes. Drones are already used to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. But critics of the new measures fear drone imaging technology will erode personal privacy.

Villasenor is optimistic drones will be applied to valuable non-military activities in the future. 

“There are many police departments in this country that are simply too small to have the budget to afford their own manned helicopter. Those departments will soon be able to buy and use much less expensive UAVs. You can imagine those things can acquire genuinely life saving imagery if they’re put up in the air above a hostage situation, and for search and rescue,” Villasenor said. “These things will save lives.”

Villasenor checked his optimism with concerns about the implications increased drone use could have on privacy.

“The current legal framework for what you can and cannot observe from the air is, in my view, not sufficiently protective, once we have a world where UAVs are plentiful and cheap,” Villasenor said.

The relevant Supreme Court precedent regarding airspace surveillance was the 1986 case California v. Ciraolo. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of state police who used a small airplane to locate marijuana plants being grown in a backyard. The Court concluded that the state did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the police were in a “public navigable airspace in a physically non-intrusive manner.”

A collective of civil liberties groups including the ACLU have petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to consider the prospective privacy breaches created by drones. The authors of the petition named cameras, heat sensors and automated license plate readers among other technologies drones could use to collect information from the sky.

Charles Easterling, founder of Crescent Unmanned Systems LLC, which manufacturers UAVs for public and commercial use, unsurprisingly doesn’t think drones pose a significant privacy threat.

“It’s important to understand where the technology is right now. There are a lot of limitations to this technology as it exists. We’re right at the precipice, at the beginning of this technology,” Easterling said. “I like to say we’re in the Wright brothers stage.”

Easterling thinks developing drone technology will serve U.S. interests at home and abroad.

“I would like to think that one day we’ll be one of the world’s leaders in UAV technology,” Easterling said. “There’s a lot of interest domestically and internationally. We’re hoping that we can create technology that will help the world.”

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