More than one-third of Americans worry that their privacy will suffer if drones like those used to spy on and launch missiles at U.S. enemies overseas become the latest police tool for tracking suspected criminals at home, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll.
Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with safety regulations that will clear the way for routine domestic use of unmanned aircraft within the next three years.
The government is under pressure from a wide range of interests to open U.S. skies to drones. Oil companies want them to monitor pipelines. Environmentalists want them to count sea lions on remote islands. Farmers want them to fly over crops with sensors that can detect which fields are wet and which need watering. Drones already are being used to help fight forest fires, and the list goes on.
On the leading edge of the market are state and local police departments, which say drones are cheaper, more practical and more effective in many cases than manned aircraft. Most of the drones would be small, generally weighing less than 55 pounds. They could be used, for example, to search for missing children or to scout a location ahead of a SWAT team.
Privacy advocates caution that drones equipped with powerful cameras, including the latest infrared cameras that can "see" through walls, listening devices and other information-gathering technology raise the specter of a surveillance society in which the activities of ordinary citizens are monitored and recorded by authorities.
About 44 percent of people support allowing police forces inside the U.S. to use drones to assist police work, but a significant minority -- 36 percent -- say they "strongly oppose" or "somewhat oppose" police use of drones, according to a survey last month.
When asked whether they were concerned that police departments' use of drones for surveillance might cause them to lose privacy, 35 percent of respondents said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned." An almost identical share, 36 percent, said they were "not too concerned" or "not concerned at all."
Twenty-four percent fell in the middle, saying they were "somewhat concerned" about a potential loss of personal privacy.
David Eisner, president and CEO of the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, said he was surprised by the level of support for police use of drones.
"I had assumed that the idea that American police would be using the same technology that our military is using in Afghanistan would garner an almost hysterical response," Mr. Eisner said.
Support for drone use "shows that people are feeling less physically secure than they'd like to because they are willing to accept fairly extreme police action to improve that security."
The poll showed a gap between the sexes, with men were more concerned about a loss of privacy if police start using drones than women -- 40 percent to 30 percent. There was an even wider gap between white and black respondents, with 48 percent of blacks strongly concerned about a loss of privacy compared with 32 percent of whites. The poll found no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.
The AP-NCC poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Aug. 16-20, using land-line and cellphone interviews with 1,006 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error was 3.9 percentage points.