Big Brother and Big Business may soon be able to easily spy on American citizens using surveillance drones, security and civil liberties specialists warned Tuesday.
As technology inches closer to that of science fiction, U.S. law has failed to keep up with those advances, they said, claiming that Fourth Amendment and other personal privacy protections are no longer enough to shield citizens from the unseen eye of drones, which will become commonplace sooner than most Americans realize.
"The current state of the law is inadequate to address the threat ... as drone technology becomes cheaper, the threat to privacy will become more substantial," said Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which Tuesday held a National Press Club forum to discuss drones and their present and future effects on privacy and civil liberties.
Also called unmanned aerial vehicles, drones currently are used only by the military and law enforcement agencies. They are set to become available for personal and commercial use as early as September 2015, raising new questions and concerns.
"Drones operated by private entities open new doors to spying, harassment and stalking," Ms. Stepanovich said.
Congress continues to work on legislation to govern the use of drones both by police and other public agencies and eventually by the general public. Such laws, constitutional specialists argue, must be implemented soon to address looming problems before they occur.
"This is a natural space for Congress to step in and say that we have a new technology, and we're worried about its privacy implications. Ultimately, we don't have to accept new technologies and let them go and see how they work. We can try and regulate the privacy implications at the outset," said Orin Kerr, a professor of law at George Washington University Law School, at Tuesday's event.
Several members of Congress continue to try to tackle the daunting issue. Thus far, however, no sweeping drone laws have been passed, with the exception of last year's Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization act.
That measure dealt only with the safety aspects of drone integration into U.S. airspace and set a detailed schedule for that to take place. It did not address privacy concerns, though the FAA has committed to addressing those concerns before moving ahead with its drone integration timetable.
Meantime, lawmakers could clear up any confusion and set clear parameters for what drones can and cannot do, though it remains to be seen whether that will happen.
"It's my opinion that Congress should take the lead on this issue, rather than wait for [violation of privacy] cases to occur and those cases end up in different courts throughout the country," said Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, who is leading the fight to enact strict privacy guidelines for drones.
For its part, the unmanned vehicle industry also has said that privacy protections are necessary. Last year, the sector's leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), passed a "code of conduct" detailing what drone operators should and should not do when it comes to taking photos, video or otherwise collecting data and tracking citizens.
The group also points to the technological advances and economic benefits associated with drones.
"The technology has already demonstrated its value," said Gretchen West, AUVSI's executive vice president, at Tuesday's forum. "Expansion of this technology will help drive economic growth across the country."
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