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Why Americans Are Saying No to Domestic Drones

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States and cities are increasingly passing legislation to stop the use of surveillance drones.

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JL A (281)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 11:29 am

Why Americans Are Saying No to Domestic Drones
States and cities are increasingly passing legislation to stop the use of surveillance drones.

By Catherine Crump and Jay Stanley

Posted Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, at 3:30 PM ET

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Draganflyer X4-P, drone-like surveillance helicopter.

Draganflyer X4-P, drone-like surveillance helicopter.

Courtesy of Draganfly Innovations Inc

In the past year, the American public has begun to pay more and more attention to the issue of domestic surveillance drones. And now, recent events suggest we might be seeing the emergence of a genuine national movement against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement. With any luck, this may even set the stage for a wider dialogue about the increasingly intrusive technologies that are intended to catch crooks—but that all too often cast an overly broad net.

Last week, after an especially raucous city council hearing, the Seattle police department terminated its drones program and agreed to return the purchased equipment to the manufacturer. This came just days after both houses of the Virginia state legislature passed historic bills imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement and regulatory agencies in the state. In Florida, a potentially even more significant bill imposing a judicial warrant requirement on police use of drones continued to march toward passage. Similar legislation has been proposed in at least 13 other state legislatures around the country so far.

Of all the threats to privacy that we face today, why have drones caught the attention of the American public to such a remarkable degree?

One possibility is that there’s something uniquely ominous about a robotic “eye in the sky.” Many privacy invasions are abstract and invisible—data mining, for example, or the profiling of Internet users by online advertisers. Drones, on the other hand, are concrete and real, and the threat requires no explanation. But they are just the most visible example of a host of new surveillance technologies that have the potential to fundamentally alter the balance of power between individuals and the state. Physically tailing a suspect requires teams of police officers working 24/7, but now police can slap GPS devices on a suspect’s car and then sit in the station house tracking his movements on a laptop. Now that the wholesale surveillance of American life is becoming cheap and easy, legal protections are all the more important.

The drone issue has also gained momentum because the concern over it is bipartisan. While Democrats get most of the credit for pushing back on national surveillance programs, it was the Republican Party’s 2012 platform that addressed domestic surveillance drones, stating that “we support pending legislation to prevent unwarranted or unreasonable governmental intrusion through the use of aerial surveillance.”

The ACLU of Virginia, for instance, teamed up with one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers to introduce a drone regulation bill in the state House of Delegates, while its Senate companion bill was introduced by a progressive. Florida’s drone regulation legislation is being almost entirely pushed by conservatives—and in most states, the legislative efforts we’ve seen so far have been conservative or bipartisan. Privacy issues are always less partisan than many other political questions, but the support for action on drones from both left and right has been remarkable.

It’s notable how different all of this is from the way surveillance technologies are normally adopted. There has actually been an opportunity for debate before drones have been widely deployed. We have the Federal Aviation Administration to thank for this state of affairs. At least for now, drones are largely banned by the FAA, which is concerned about the obvious safety issues: We can’t have our skies filled with flying robots colliding with passenger aircraft or plummeting into people’s houses. (This state of affairs will not last: Congress has ordered the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace by 2015.)

What we usually see happen with new law enforcement technologies is that agencies quickly and quietly snap them up, making their deployment a fait accompli before the public even learns of their existence, let alone has a chance to debate their privacy implications or democratically decide upon the correct balance between privacy and police power. At that point, taking privacy into account is an uphill battle because the tax dollars have already been spent and the technology integrated into the department’s approach to crime fighting.

With drones, on the other hand, because of the safety and regulatory issues they raise, we have a chance to do it right. The American public and our elected representatives can, for once, get ahead of the deployment curve—we can raise awareness, propose protections, and build support for them before the problems hit us in the face. If done right, this moment of hyperawareness about privacy could become a more permanent state of affairs: Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society suggested in a December 2011 paper that because of their “disquieting” nature, drones “could be just the visceral jolt society needs” to spark broader changes in how Americans conceptualize privacy problems.

Ultimately, the best solution on drones would be for Congress to pass strong, uniform rules protecting everyone across the nation and putting privacy concerns to rest. For example, law enforcement agents should not make drones general tools of surveillance but should instead utilize them only where they have a specific reason to believe that use of one will turn up evidence of criminal activity. Ideally, those protections would become a model for other, perhaps less vivid but equally intrusive technologies such as cellphone location tracking. But unless and until Congress acts, state and local resolutions and rules are the best thing Americans can do to protect our privacy from the enormously invasive potential of domestic surveillance drones. The upsurge in local activism around the country is just what’s needed to make this happen.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.

Roger G (154)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 2:00 pm
noted, thanks !

John B (185)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 3:00 pm
Thanks J.L. for posting this here on C2NN. Got this news in an email newsletter today. Kudos to the city of Seattle and the police department. Re-read and noted.

JL A (281)
Tuesday February 12, 2013, 4:52 pm
You are welcome Roger and John! Seattle does serve kudos.ou cannot currently send a star to John because you have done so within the last week.

Robert O (12)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 12:26 am
Thanks for this story.

Pogle S (88)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 12:42 am
Post 1984!

Care member (1)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 4:13 am

Tanya W (65)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 5:56 am
Noted - scary for some.

JL A (281)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 8:17 am
You are welcome Robert.

Roger S (14)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 11:07 am
Frankly, I have no problem with drones and don't understand why some people think they should be banned. It's not as if they can go into your house and watch you there. They are no different than police helicopters patrolling overhead, or the cop passing by in his car or walking a beat, or the thousands of video cameras already watching you in public places.

Past Member (0)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 12:19 pm
Thanks, J.L.A. This was informative.

JL A (281)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 12:29 pm
Perhaps the concerns are less for those in apartments or otherwise without personal outdoor spaces Roger?
You are welcome Laura.

Sharon W. (4)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 2:02 pm
@Roger: Oh, and those video cameras are no problem? Let me guess: You have nothing to hide? You don´t even lock the door when going to the toilet, right?
Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.
(That was one of your presidents, no?

Dianna M (16)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 4:10 pm
“we support pending legislation to prevent unwarranted or unreasonable governmental intrusion through the use of aerial surveillance.”--wait, the REPUBLICANS said this?

Well, OK, I guess I gotta believe that--after all, Mike Johanns DID introduce a bill in the senate on Aug. 1 of last year that would "ban the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from conducting aerial surveillance of ag operations for one year."

Gloria H (88)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 6:45 pm
I find one of those peering outside my window, I'm going to get a broom and swat the thing to bits and pieces.Use the money for making the damned things for feeding, sheltering the poor, not to make the rich and paranoid "feel safer".
Guess what? We are ALL gonna die sooner or later, when your time is up that's it. Drones, bodyguards, anti virus masks, antibacterial soap, airbags, dustmite obstructing pillowcases....nuthin is gonna save you when the sand runs out of the hourglass.

JL A (281)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 6:58 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Gloria because you have done so within the last week

Birgit W (160)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 7:43 pm

Edith B (146)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 9:46 pm
Thanks for posting this. There seems to be little public awareness of these drones. The NDAA certainly did not help us retain our privacy. I hope other Cities and states follow Seattle and Virginia's lead.

JL A (281)
Wednesday February 13, 2013, 9:59 pm
You are welcome Edith--too many are unaware of privacy and other losses occurring with technology. I do, too.

Lois Jordan (63)
Thursday February 14, 2013, 3:07 pm
Noted. Thanks, J.L. Since Congress is so dysfunctional they can't agree on much of anything, it's up to us to "get local." This is good news, and I hope many other cities pass legislation banning drones. It would sure make it much easier if we could do it on a statewide basis, though...entire states banning all drones within their borders would speak volumes to Congress. I'm also glad to read that this seems to be a nonpartisan issue--both sides could come together over this. The devil may be in the details, though, because the manufacturers of these machines aren't going to be happy if their profits drop, and they may fight back.

JL A (281)
Thursday February 14, 2013, 5:14 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Lois because you have done so within the last week.
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