I wrote a piece in Turnstyle News about the growing domestic use of drones. It’s the second in a series of two articles I wrote about drones.
Imagine hearing a buzzing sound over your head in the sky everyday. It’s not a bug. Nor is it an airplane. It’s an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as a drone. There is no pilot inside the vehicle; it’s being controlled by remote control in a secret location a few dozen or hundreds of miles away from you. The drone flies over you, tracking your movements every day. Everywhere you go — to work, to school, to visit friends, or even to a protest or party — the drone buzzes over your head and watches what you do.
Whether or not this scenario creeps you out, you better get used to it. While drones are largely known for what they do overseas, such as killing suspected terrorists, they are also being used on U.S. soil. In late June 2011, according to the Los Angeles Times, local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone to apprehend three men. Police, armed with a search warrant, were looking for six missing cows and chased off by gunmen. Fearing an armed standoff, the police used a drone to fly over their land and locate the three suspects. The drone’s video showed the suspects were unarmed and the police proceeded to arrest them. This is one instance, out of many, of drones increasingly being used domestically.
Agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and others possess and use drones for law enforcement activities, especially surveillance. In fact, as Wired‘s Danger Room blog recently reported, there are 64 drone bases within the United States. Last February, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act, which allows drones to fly in U.S. commercial airspace by 2015. This makes it easier for federal agencies and corporations to fly drones in U.S. skies. With a bipartisan drone caucus and powerful lobbies for the drone industry, the use of drones is likely to expand not just overseas but also on American soil.
The expansion of domestic drone use raises numerous disturbing implications. One disturbing implication is mission creep. Domestic drones are currently being used for humanitarian purposes, such as search and rescue missions and fighting wildfires. But as more federal agencies embrace drones, they’ll inevitably be used for more controversial purposes. According to a reportby the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), beginning a few years ago, purchased nearly $180 million for ten drones (which were $18 million a piece). However, due to lack of ground stations and support, the drones only flew 37 percent as often as they were supposed to. The drones logged in 3,909 flight hours during a 12-month period when they should have spent more than 10,000 hours in the air. Because CBP’s drones were mostly sitting around, their missions expanded beyond customs or border patrol. These missions included providing FEMA “with video/radar images of flooding” and participating in “joint efforts with the U.S. Army to leverage capabilities of unmanned aircraft and test new technology”. As more government agencies get their hands on drones, they will become commonplace in our skies and used in ways they were not anticipated.
Another obvious and controversial implication of domestic drone use is pervasive video surveillance by the government. In December of last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report detailing how drones can be used to curtail Americans’ privacy rights and civil liberties. They point out that pervasive video surveillance can have a chilling effect in our public spaces and out that video surveillance is susceptible to other abuses. This includes individual voyeurism, with police departments or government agencies spying on people in moments when they expect privacy — such as when they make love (this actually happened in 2004 when a New York City police helicopter spied on a couple making love on a rooftop). Another is discriminatory targeting of certain marginalized groups, such as people of color. According to the ACLU, in Great Britain “camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color”. The danger is that like other troubling practices, these abuses could be institutionalized within law enforcement agencies rather than be the actions of a few “bad apples”.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” and upholds “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”. This is why police departments need a court warrant or “probable cause” to search someone or their house and belongings, except in certain situations. However, domestic use of drones threatens to undermine this. According to the ACLU, “because of their potential for pervasive use in ordinary law enforcement operations and capacity for revealing far more than the naked eye, drones pose a more serious threat to privacy than to manned flights”. Therefore, domestic drone surveillance has the capacity to seriously curtail one of our basic civil liberties — the right to privacy.
Another pernicious aspect is that not only can domestic drones be used for surveillance, they can also be armed. Last month, CBSDC reported that the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas “is considering using rubber bullets and tear gas on its drone”. Fortunately, two weeks ago, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) offered an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill prohibiting DHS funding for “the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles”. The amendment was adopted and the bill passed the House of Representatives. The bill is currently in the Senate and if you want to tell your Senator to support this bill then click here to send them a letter. However, it is possible for this bill to fail in the Senate, the President to veto it, or for future legislation to allow the arming of domestic drones. Hopefully, neither of these will happen but as domestic drones proliferate, it is important to remain vigilant against the potential of them being armed or violating basic privacy rights.
These are the disturbing implications of domestic drone use. While domestic drones can be used for reasonable purposes, such as fighting wildfires, they should not be used to violate our basic civil liberties.
Originally appeared in Turnstyle News on June 26, 2012.