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EDITORIAL: Drones over America

Domestic spying portends surveillance society

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Big Sis is watching. Aerial surveillance drones designed to protect the nation's borders and fight terrorists overseas are turning their electronic eyes on Americans here at home. While gathering intelligence on the activities of suspected lawbreakers, Uncle Sam risks invading the privacy of the law-abiding. A bright line must be drawn between surveillance for legitimate law enforcement purposes and illicit spying that violates Americans' constitutional right to be left alone.

The threat comes from Janet Napolitano's Department of Homeland Security, which is deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, to assist local authorities with airborne surveillance. It's also doling out millions in grant cash to encourage small-town cops to buy drones, whether they serve a purpose or not.

In February, lawmakers on Capitol Hill passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which instructs the Federal Aviation Administration to compile rules allowing more drones to take to the skies, including for commercial purposes. The agency has forecast there could be as many as 30,000 airborne spies by 2020. The devices frequently carry high-resolution cameras capable of reading license plates, which, in combination with facial-recognition software, could recognize and track individuals, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Such tracking made sense when use was confined to keeping tabs on our enemies in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Use of this battlefield technology on American soil is a recent phenomenon, and there are few restrictions in place. That's something that needs to change. Drone manufacturers are only concerned with one thing: They're rushing to grab a piece of the UAV market lucre, projected to double to $11.4 billion within a decade. They're not particularly worried about pausing to consider whether this is a good idea. In November, an industry coalition sent a letter to the FAA urging the agency to "remain focused on safety rather than privacy issues, where the FAA has no statutory standing or technical expertise."

Fortunately, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum aren't waiting for Washington to halt threats to their privacy. In Alameda County, Calif., Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern announced plans earlier this year to purchase a drone for use in "emergencies." In response, the American Civil Liberties Union teamed up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to pressure the county board of supervisors on Dec. 4 to table approval of $31,646 for the UAV purchase. In Florida, Republican State Sen. Joe Negron has filed a drone-surveillance bill that would prohibit the use of UAVs above the state except when the secretary of homeland security determines there is "high risk" of a terrorist attack.

Congress also should step in and assist Americans in defending against this latest form of government intrusion. In June, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, introduced the Preserving Freedom From Unwarranted Surveillance Act, which would require authorities to procure a warrant before spying on someone from above. Exceptions would include patrols of national borders, "imminent dangers to life" and terror threats. Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, has filed a similar bill in the House.

If national security were the true goal, there should be no opposition to the idea of ensuring third-party judicial oversight of these powerful devices. That's why lawmakers should act sooner rather than later to ensure the bad ideas don't get off the ground.

The Washington Times

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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