Drones too risky?

Domestic drones coming to your ‘hood

Drones, those unmanned aerial vehicles used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are being expedited for domestic deployment, opening up a frontier of speculation about privacy, the legality of invasive imagery and the militarization of police. Today, Georgia congressman Austin Scott writes about his proposed legislation to restrict drones. We also offer varied opinions about the promise and peril of government and private drones patrolling our borders and, perhaps, your backyard.

Today’s moderator is Tom Sabulis. Commenting is open below our collection of views on drones.

By Austin Scott

For the past few years, unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones” as they are often called, have become a common tool used by our military overseas. Drone technology has been an invaluable resource to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’ve also used drone surveillance along our southern border to prevent illegal immigration and combat drug trafficking.

Drones are an attractive tool for the military because of their cost-effectiveness and operator safety, among other things. Because of these benefits, drones also are being more widely considered by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for domestic use in the United States.

Naturally, this development has stirred debate among many Americans.

The alarm over domestic drone use does not reflect an anti-drone sentiment; rather, it stems from questions about the consequences these relatively quiet unmanned aircraft — some of which are as small as a hummingbird — will have on Americans’ privacy. Therefore, drones could present a risk to the protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” outlined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

While highly effective and certainly an attractive alternative to risking American lives, drone technology presents a greater risk of being used in a much more intrusive manner than other aerial surveillance technology.

Drones are capable of staying aloft for days at a time and can be equipped with highly sophisticated camera technology that can collect a constant stream of surveillance footage. With advances in drone technology and without a requirement that federal agencies obtain a warrant, drones could conduct surveillance for days without just cause.

To ensure that drones are not used to violate Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, I recently introduced HR 5925, Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act. This bill would require the government to obtain a warrant before conducting drone surveillance in the United States.

Recognizing that there are situations where the use of drones is necessary and appropriate, such as search and rescue, my bill aims to balance privacy concerns and the ability to harness drone technology for legitimate domestic use.

Drones have proved highly effective in emergency situations requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life — such as wildfires. For these reasons, my bill has emergency exceptions and also would permit the federal government to use drones to patrol the national borders or when they are needed to prevent a terrorist attack.

Beyond these public safety exceptions, the legislation would require law enforcement to acquire a warrant from a judge. This follows the spirit of current laws regarding surveillance.

This technology is evolving rapidly and will soon reach previously unforeseen capabilities. Therefore, we must be proactive and ensure that our laws address these new technologies and maintain the safeguards enshrined in our Constitution.

Without the ability to foresee where drone technology could lead, it is important that we protect Americans’ civil liberties from the outset. This legislation may not be the last word on the issue, but it is an important start in this effort to ensure that drones are not used to infringe on Americans’ privacy rights.

Austin Scott represents Georgia’s 8th Congressional District.

Other Views

“Drones are a legitimate form of law enforcement. You don’t have an expectation of privacy if you’re in the open.”

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

“It’s great! If you’re keeping police officers safe, making it more productive and saving money … it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

“It’s important to open the skies to drones, and welcome them, but with an open eye towards safety, national security and privacy issues. The sheer mathematics of the numbers mean we’re going to have some hiccups along the way. It is almost unimaginably complex to think about how in the world we’re going to successfully navigate the safety challenges of potentially tens of thousands of these unmanned aviation systems operated in unconventional locations and used for all these different tasks.”

John Villasenor, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

“Americans clearly support using drone technology in special circumstances, but they are a bit leery of more routine use by local law enforcement agencies.”

Patrick Murray, director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

“The most urgent threat that domestic drones pose at this time is as instruments of mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy. We agree that Fourth Amendment principles must certainly govern any domestic use of drones. We believe that support for the Holt Amendment [barring Department of Homeland Security funding on armed drones] sends a powerful message: Armed drones have no place in America. We must not rush into embracing a dangerous new military technology.”

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel, and Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst, American Civil Liberties Union

“You can, and should, anticipate the potential for abuse, but … you have to invest the resources and figure out what the rules are. We don’t disarm the police because of a potential for police abuse because of weapons. We try and hire the right people, we give them good training, we have internal affairs bureaus that examine every shooting, we discipline the people who do it badly, we fire those that do it badly more than once, and we prosecute those who do it badly in ways that violate more important social norms. That model will apply to the use of drones in the government sector.”

Paul Rosenzweig, The Heritage Foundation

“Ultimately the best thing that could happen … would be some sort of a model set of laws, aimed at states for their adoption, in which we had a discussion up front about what the tradeoffs need to be between exposure and privacy. The worst thing would be to allow the laws to be driven by a series of really ugly cases in which we have not thought about the tradeoffs.”

Kenneth Anderson, law professor, American University

“A new internal audit from the Department of Homeland Security pinpoints two basic problems with domestic drones: They’re insanely expensive and super high-maintenance. So, for instance, for each hour of flight your typical drone requires an hour of maintenance. Considering your typical domestic craft retails for about $18 million a piece — DHS has spent over $250 million on them in the past six years — this isn’t great. Not working very well isn’t the only strike against domestic drones. Privacy advocates point out that tens of thousands of giant eyeballs in the sky — 30,000 by 2020, according to one count — gives the government plenty of opportunity to invade the privacy of everyday Americans, deliberately or not.”

Daniel Adler, Rolling Stone

“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. I like to say we’re in the Wright brothers stage. I would like to think that one day we’ll be one of the world’s leaders in UAV technology. There’s a lot of interest domestically and internationally. We’re hoping that we can create technology that will help the world.” — Charles Easterling, founder of Crescent Unmanned Systems LLC, which manufactures drones for public and commercial use

8 comments Add your comment

John MacDonald

June 23rd, 2012
5:21 pm

People making comments here seem to have greatly exagerated the costs of “typical drones”.
The “Drone” itself, ie the actual flying device, which may be a helicopter, fixed wing aircraft, or even an airship, is only the tip of the iceberg. “Drones” (the correct title is UAV or UAS) are the visible part of a system of data gathering, transmission,examination and action which includes operating bases or ground control and monitoring stations, repair and servicing facilities, personnel training, transport and quarters etc, Like manned aircraft, the cost of the actual aircraft is a very small part of the total costs, including airfields, hangers, personnel,engineering facilities etc. There are very effective UAV systems, (UAV = Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) which in totality cost under two thousand dollars. As with most things, the more ability you want, the higher the budget you need. Compare the cost of a hang glider with the cost, (Including developement) of, say, a B2 bomber! Unlike some of the comment authors above, I know what I am talking about, being the retired Managing Director of a UAV company with over fifty years experience in the field. Never mistake enthusiasm for expertise!

S Bailey

June 22nd, 2012
5:23 pm

Military use, no problem….Law Enforcement use ? Maybe only as a specific use per incident, but not a patrol unit to look for ANYTHING, including simple code violations for Quality of Life issues.

But my basic fear is coupled with the knowledge that the President has decided he has the power to order the execution of any one he deems an enemy, INCLUDING American Citizens without benefit of a Trial. Any POTUS could deem someone, anyone, an Enemy of the State & order you to be vaporized….And then claim Executive Privilege to cover up the deed.

Given the current climate of this Administration & suggesting those that are Patriots, Uphold the Constitution, Believe in the 2nd Amendment & for less Government Intrusion into our lives are Domestic Terrorists…..Is it really that much of a stretch to order such an Execution?

Think about it….



June 22nd, 2012
4:04 pm

Sorry, meant Afghanistan… but we used tehm in Iraq as well.


June 22nd, 2012
4:03 pm

We use UAV’s extensively here in Iraq and have something that’s virtually ignored in all the above discussion; airspace control dedicated to supporting their operation. With the amount of uncontrolled airspace (think almost anything outside a five mile radius of a commercial airport) in the US, the amount of commercial and private aviation, and the strains already placed on the air traffic control system you have no idea of the complexity of doing this – In everyplace it’s done now there is no commercial air traffic to speak of. There have already been near mid air collisions in the US where very little drone work is done, and done in very small areas. Want to try this in the ATL? With unregulated helicopter and private aircraft traffic through downtown? Good luck!

nelson howard

June 22nd, 2012
2:27 pm

Drones cost $4,500,000 each. In addition there are highly trained support personnel on the ground. Also, fuel expense. Also, with other planes there is also the possiblity of collision not to mention being shot down. I really fail to understand why with a $15,000,000,000,000 dollar deficit in the U.S treasury why do our represenatives look for more ways to spend money?
Am I missing something? Spending more is good for the economy regardless of the deficit?

Hillbilly D

June 22nd, 2012
2:15 pm

Armed drones have no place in America.

In my view, drones without a warrant would be a violation of the 4th Amendment. But whether that turns out to be the case or not (I’d guess the Supreme Court will decide), why in the wide world of sports would they need to be armed. If my neighbor across the holler is up to something no good, do I need to worry about being collateral damage?

Logical Dude

June 22nd, 2012
1:26 pm

I, for one, welcome our new imperial pilotless winged overlords.


June 22nd, 2012
1:08 pm

The drones in question are simply a tool like any other which should be a part of the arsenal used to protect our safety and security. However, like any other tool they can and will most likely be abused. It is important to clearly document what is required to use these tools and how they specifically may be used.

For instance if the DEA has evidence that a landowner has a large marijuana grow operation on their property a warranty is obtained and surveillance carried out. However, the DEA should not be allowed to randomly fly over suburban neighborhoods on the chance that they might spot a few plants in someone’s backyard.