Talk of drones patrolling U.S. skies spawns anxiety

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The prospect that thousands of drones could be patrolling U.S. skies by the end of this decade is raising the specter of a Big Brother government that peers into backyards and bedrooms.

The worries began mostly on the political margins, but there are signs that ordinary people are starting to fret that unmanned aircraft could soon be circling overhead.

Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican congressman from Louisiana’s coastal bayou country, said constituents have stopped him while shopping at Walmart to talk about it.

“There is a distrust amongst the people who have come and discussed this issue with me about our government,” Landry said. “It’s raising an alarm with the American public.”

Another GOP freshman, Rep. Austin Scott, said he first learned of the issue when someone shouted out a question about drones at a Republican Party meeting in his Georgia congressional district two months ago.

An American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist, Chris Calabrese, said that when he speaks to audiences about privacy issues generally, drones are what “everybody just perks up over.”

“People are interested in the technology, they are interested in the implications and they worry about being under surveillance from the skies,” he said.

The level of apprehension is especially high in the conservative blogosphere, where headlines blare “30,000 Armed Drones to be Used Against Americans” and “Government Drones Set to Spy on Farms in the United States.”

When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, suggested during a radio interview last month that drones be used by police domestically since they’ve done such a good job on foreign battlefields, the political backlash was swift. NetRightDaily complained: “This seems like something a fascist would do. … McDonnell isn’t pro-Big Government, he is pro-HUGE Government.”

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Va., which provides legal assistance in support of civil liberties and conservative causes, warned the governor, “America is not a battlefield, and the citizens of this nation are not insurgents in need of vanquishing.”

There’s concern as well among liberal civil liberties advocates that government and private-sector drones will be used to gather information on Americans without their knowledge. A lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco, whose motto is “defending your rights in the digital world,” forced the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year to disclose the names of dozens of public universities, police departments and other government agencies that have been awarded permission to fly drones in civilian airspace on an experimental basis.

Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” the ACLU warned last December in a report.

The anxiety has spilled over into Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been meeting to discuss legislation that would broadly address the civil-liberty issues raised by drones. A Landry provision in a defense spending bill would prohibit information gathered by military drones without a warrant from being used as evidence in court. A provision that Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., added to another bill would prohibit the Homeland Security Department from arming its drones, including ones used to patrol the border.

Scott and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced identical bills to prohibit any government agency from using a drone to “gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation” without a warrant.

“I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates,” Paul said in an interview, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks.

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