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EDITORIAL: Grounding the drones

Iowa City gets a vote on banning airborne spies

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It's easy to throw in the towel when government policies get out of hand. Politicians have succeeded in driving the myth that you can't beat City Hall, which makes it easier to impose unpopular laws and ordinances without the views of the unwashed masses getting in their way.

Not everyone buys into the myth. A diverse coalition of activists, from the College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty on one hand to the liberals at the American Civil Liberties Union on the other are turning to the ballot box in Iowa City, Iowa, to put an end to the city's dream of universal surveillance.

Iowa is at the center of a growing public scrutiny of drones. The Iowa Air National Guard base at Des Moines is the control center for a squadron of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, like those used to kill al Qaeda terrorists and other targeted terrorists in Afghanistan. Drone manufacturers have flocked to the state to set up shop in communities like Cedar Rapids.

Last week, Iowa City's drone opponents turned in more than 3,300 signatures on a petition (only 2,500 were needed) calling for a referendum to ban spy technologies, including drones, red-light cameras, speeding cameras and license plate readers. "Our city's motto is 'Big city choices, small town atmosphere," Martha Hampel, a petition sponsor, tells The Washington Times. "We don't feel like Iowa City should be a testing ground for this kind of surveillance."

Bureaucrats often buy the latest technology simply because they can, not because it's needed — especially when someone else is paying for it. The Department of Homeland Security has eagerly dished out grants to encourage small-town police departments to load up on revenue cameras and drones.

Stop Big Brother, the group behind the initiative, says it's inevitable that those who control the drones will give in to the temptation to misuse them. A drone's powerful cameras might be used to look for a missing child or track down a notorious criminal, or in a small town with little crime the drone operators might be tempted to see what's happening in a backyard or into a bedroom with an open window to see what's none of their business.

Iowa City's leaders have demonstrated their interest in spy cameras by starting the search for a private company to write red-light tickets in the name of safety. Organizers of the campaign to ban the revenue cameras point out that if the city council really cared about reducing traffic accidents it would paint crosswalks on the streets downtown, making it less likely pedestrians will be hit by cars. City officials refuse to do so because they think it would make the quaint, brick-lined streets look unattractive. Aesthetics trump safety.

Money also trumps safety. It's obvious cities want a piece of the photo-ticketing scam. In the District of Columbia, for example, the revenue cameras earned $79 million last year. The drones won't be far behind. Washingtonians could learn a lesson or two from Iowa City residents.

The Washington Times

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