For the last several months, civil libertarians have watched deadly, unmanned flying drones circle Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen with their unblinking eyes and constantly cocked ears.
What happens, they’ve worried, once that technology follows the U.S. military home?
Last week, farming websites in Iowa and Nebraska were scorched by rumors that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had launched drones over local cattle herds. As things turned out, the surveillance – the EPA was looking for evidence of large deposits of manure entering the water supply – was of the manned Cessna variety.
But it was during this Midwestern uproar that U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican who represents a large swath of South Georgia farmland, dropped the first piece of legislation designed to restrict the use of government-operated drones over American soil.
The measure would bar the government use of flying eyes and ears to gather evidence in criminal investigations, or to search for regulatory violations, without a proper search warrant.
We already have plenty of cameras monitoring our lives, but the government-owned ones are aimed at public spaces. They do not peek over fences into our backyards, Scott argues.
“We’re not opposed to the use of drones. But their use has to be consistent with the established rules with regard to search and seizure. The same thing that you would have to obtain to use a wiretap, you would have to have for the use of a drone,” Scott said. “This has the potential to be a huge invasion.”
H.R. 5925 includes exemptions for border patrols, and emergency use by law enforcement or national security authorities. Ultimately, Scott said, the legislation could address privacy rules when it comes to the commercial use of drones as well.
Because, face it. In only a few years, Captain Herb could be — via an unmanned spy in the sky — directing morning Atlanta traffic from his laptop while sitting at home in his jammies.
Scott’s legislation received a quick conversational boost from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has introduced a parallel measure. Paul, son of the yet-unbowed GOP presidential candidate, is considered a rising star in the party.
“He is the perfect senator to carry this language,” Scott said. “He’s got the ability to attract a lot of attention to the issue.”
Scott and Paul have had several opportunities to discuss the issue. Scott plays left field on the Republican congressional baseball team. Paul is the center fielder. “So we’re together a good bit,” Scott said.
Drones are indeed coming to your future – in part because they’re handy, in part because they’re cost effective.
Late last year, the Georgia State Patrol applied to a private company looking for candidates to test out a small drone – no larger than a sheet of paper – in SWAT operations. The GSP lost out.
Likewise, Georgia Tech’s public safety department applied for federal approval for a drone to help analyze Saturday football traffic. Also denied.
Even so, Scott’s decision to engage on this issue is significant, given that the Georgia Tech Research Institute is one of the nation’s premier centers for drone studies, operating from acreage around Menlo, Ga., near the Alabama border.
Georgia Tech has been turning up more uses for drones than Scott’s bill may be able to address.
Two Tech researchers, Lora Weiss and Gary McMurray, smartly declined to comment on the congressman’s effort to rein in domestic drones from the get-go. But they outlined the many areas that unmanned aircraft are likely to be used.
Take that earthquake in Haiti, Weiss said. “Many people on the ground had cell phones, but not cell phone towers. You could easily put up drones as mobile flying towers,” she said.
The same thing with that post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Japan. Better to have an unmanned drone track a radioactive cloud than a plane with a pilot in it, she said.
Weiss is also researching the use of drones as more efficient forest-fire monitors. One drone could use thermal images to spot a flame – another could go in close for a visual. She’s involved in developing means by which multiple drones can coordinate with each other – with minimum human involvement.
Then there’s agriculture. McMurray said farmers in Argentina, South Korea and Japan already hire outfits that send small, unmanned helicopters over their fields to make assessments.
Drones could be used to detect diseased fields and administer surgical strikes. “As opposed to blasting the entire field, which is a waste of money with a huge environmental impact, we can target the application of the chemicals to just the impacted areas,” McMurray said.
And the size of some of these future agricultural drones? Some could be small enough to be owned and operated by individual farmers.
This is where Scott’s measure may fall short. It is all well and good to be suspicious of government snooping. But how do you secure your own domestic air space against citizen-on-citizen prying – inadvertent or otherwise?
The EPA is one thing. But there may be no greater threat to American privacy than a homeowners association with its own air force.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider