by Sandra Parshall
If you’ve ever received a speeding ticket in the mail, accompanied by a picture of your vehicle, you know you’re being watched. But most of us have accepted the ubiquitous traffic cams and security cams because we see their value every time one of them is instrumental in the identification and arrest of a criminal.
But surveillance drones? These things are freaking out people from coast to coast.
Undoubtedly the outcry is caused partly by bad associations: we hear the word drone and immediately picture a sinister, unpiloted aircraft that can be used for spying or for dropping bombs. The kind of drones U.S. police departments want to use are small, don’t fly very high, and are not armed. But they are made for watching people. Police want to use them for surveillance. Alarmed citizens imagine little machines hovering outside their windows, aiming a video camera inside the house.
All across the U.S., state and local governments are scrambling to answer these fears. At least a dozen states so far have either banned or restricted the use of drones by police or other government agencies.
The Seattle Police Department purchased two drones last fall, but widespread publicity about them brought a storm of public protest, and last week Mayor Michael McGinn ordered the police not to use the machines. The drones, which had never been deployed, are going back to the manufacturer.
|One of Seattle's ill-fated drones|
The Charlottesville, VA, city council felt local restrictions were needed, although the city’s police don’t even have a drone and haven’t requested one. The city council has spelled out how the technology may and may not be used. If the police ever obtain a drone, it may be used for search and rescue, but not for surveillance of citizens. No evidence collected by a drone can be used in a criminal case in city courts.
Last year, Congress enacted a federal law making it easier for local law enforcement to purchase drones for domestic surveillance, and grants to cover the cost became available through the Department of Homeland Security. Now some members of Congress are trying to rein in their use because it may violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
When introducing the Preserving American Privacy Act, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said, “According to the FAA, by 2015, it will allow the use of drones nationwide, and by 2030, 30,000 drones will be cruising American skies – looking, observing, filming, and hovering over America. They will come whether we like it or not. We will not know where they are or what they’re looking at or what their purpose is, whether it’s permitted or not permitted, whether it’s lawful or unlawful, and we really won’t know who is flying those drones.”
In many cases, “who is flying those drones” will be individuals who bought them – starting at around $300 each – at Radio Shack or some other electronics retailer. Amazon has six pages of drones and drone accessories. You can control your personal drone with your iPhone or iPad or iPod. (I guess they have an app for that.) They come with interchangeable hulls for indoor as well as outdoor use and cameras that stream live video. They come in various sizes, but most personal drones are much smaller than those made for police and weigh less than five pounds.
|The Parrot drone|
I can see the usefulness of drones in search and rescue operations. In wilderness areas they could save the lives of lost hikers or children by locating them more quickly than search parties on foot ever could. In autumn of 2011, anti-government protestors in Poland used a drone to track the movements of Warsaw police and military troops.
But I’m not sure why police in the U.S. are so eager to acquire them for “surveillance” of citizens. A drone can’t be sent out on its own to follow somebody around wherever he goes. The machine has to be monitored and controlled remotely by a human. How high in the air would it be? Would it be visible from the ground? What’s to stop somebody from shooting it down? How easy would it be to maneuver in an area with power and utility lines, cell phone towers, tall buildings, and mature trees?
|The Dragonfly drone|
Aside from privacy issues, the use of this technology raises legal questions that will have to be answered. Private detectives gathering evidence for divorce or insurance fraud cases risk arrest for trespassing if they go on someone’s property without permission. Should they be allowed to use drones to peek through windows and take photos or record videos? If you saw a drone hovering above your property and you knocked it down – or shot it down – and destroyed it, would you be liable for the damage?
How much privacy are we entitled to in our daily lives? What kind of restrictions would you like to see on the use of personal drones?
While we’re on the subject of privacy, how do you feel about Google putting photos of your house on the internet? Here’s the Parshall Manse from the street and the air.
I don’t care if the whole world knows what my house looks like, but seeing it on the internet is a little weird. Nobody trespassed onto our property to take these pictures (maybe the aerial shot was taken by a drone?), so is Google violating our right to privacy?
Where does the individual’s right to privacy end these days?