The use of unmanned aircraft systems or drones along the U.S. border with Mexico has been well-documented, but a recent law and actions by the Federal Aviation Administration have raised concerns that drones could soon be employed nationwide to monitor civilians.
After filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a nonprofit group that advocates for free speech and privacy rights “in the digital world” — recently obtained a list of all the public entities that have been authorized by the FAA to fly drones. While the list predictably includes federal government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, it also grants authorization to 23 universities, 12 local police departments and even the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Some of the research being conducted at universities for military purposes is entirely legitimate, but the carte blanche given to police departments from Miami-Dade County to Seattle suggests that there will be no shortage of potential drone buyers in the future.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International — the lobbying arm for drone manufacturers — intends to keep it that way.
The group spent $280,000 on lobbying expenses in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Its efforts procured a number of favorable provisions in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, including the implementation of “a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system” by 2015.
The Teal Group, a team of defense industry analysts, estimates that the global market for drones will double in the next decade from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, local police departments could fill the void in the drone market left by fewer military operations.
Michael Huerta, acting administrator at the FAA, received minimal probing from senators at his nomination hearing Thursday in front of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. According to reports by the Associated Press, Huerta was hesitant to provide more details about the FAA’s approval of drones at an industry luncheon in Washington earlier this year:
“The thing we care about is doing that in an orderly and safe way and finding the appropriate…balance of all the users in the system.”
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, introduced legislation last week that would require law enforcement agencies to seek a warrant before using drones for Orwellian surveillance and issued this statement:
“Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued. Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics.”