Many questions, few answers as Capitol Hill weighs drones, privacy

Could police arm drones with tear gas or pepper spray? Will unmanned aircraft someday conduct 24-hour surveillance on American streets? Which arm of the federal government will take the lead in restricting what drones can do and what types of information they can collect?

Those questions and a host of others were raised at a Senate hearing Wednesday morning, one of Congress‘ first panels dedicated to the hotly debated issue of unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. skies.

Definitive answers to those questions, however, were few and far between.

“I’m convinced that the domestic use of drones will have a broad and significant impact on the everyday lives of Americans. … This is raising some very serious questions from the far right to the far left,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, highlighting the fact the explosion of drones in the private and public sectors has tripped alarm bells with lawmakers across the political spectrum.

Liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California have raised many of the same concerns brought forward by conservative Republicans, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Earlier this week, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a detailed drone-privacy bill that would require police to obtain warrants before using the craft for surveillance. Rep. Ted Poe, a conservative Texas Republican, has introduced legislation that includes similar privacy safeguards and warrant provisions.

But while both chambers in Congress and both major political parties agree that something must be done, lawmakers still have many more questions than solutions.

Mr. Leahy asked, for example, whether police departments legally will be allowed to deploy tear gas or other nonlethal force from a drone, whether it be for riot control or for other purposes. That seems to be an open question, though law enforcement agencies don’t appear interested in doing so — for now.

“That’s been brought up before. In our experience, considering the risks of unmanned aircraft and the risks of less-than-lethal munitions … combining those two risks together is probably not the most responsible thing to do,” said Benjamin Miller, who heads the unmanned aircraft program for the sheriff’s office in Mesa County, Colo., which routinely uses two small drones.

Lawmakers probed the hearing witnesses on issues ranging from safety inspections by the Federal Aviation Administration to the steps the federal government can take to ensure drones don’t crash into airplanes or helicopters.

But the most troubling questions surround privacy.

While Mr. Miller made clear that his department doesn’t currently have technology “that can read license plates from space,” it’s clear that drones can provide police and, eventually, private companies with new data-collection and surveillance capabilities.

U.S. law has yet to catch up with those advances, privacy advocates argue.

Congress can do more,” said Amie Stepanovich, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center who also testified at Wednesday’s hearing. She added that existing law does not “encompass the type of surveillance that drones are able to conduct,” and that the federal government must address the issue before the FAA begins granting commercial drone licenses in 2015.

The sector’s leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, has countered by pointing to the economic benefits and new jobs that the coming drone boom can provide.

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