- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2013

As technology advances, Americans’ privacy expectations are being squeezed down to the point they soon will fit easily within the walls of a home.

The rise of domestic drones, coupled with satellites, cellphones and ubiquitous security cameras, is revolutionizing the concept of personal privacy. The current path of surveillance, legal experts say, leads to a place where citizens should assume that their backyard barbecues and swimming pools are under someone’s watchful eye.

“It seems to me we’re moving rapidly toward the notion that the only place you’re absolutely guaranteed of your privacy is in your house. Good or bad, that seems to be the way things are starting to shape up,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican. “It’s terribly scary.”

The loss of personal privacy didn’t begin with the arrival of domestic drones, analysts say; they’re merely the latest development in what’s been a steady erosion.

It has long been reasonable to assume that vehicles are being monitored by traffic cameras, which are popping up at an increasing number of intersections and city street corners. Google Earth already has created a map of virtually every neighborhood in the U.S., easily accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone.

Drones, however, have the potential to be a game-changer in the privacy debate, some say. Average Americans may not fully understand — or care about — data-mining, for example, but it’s easy to grasp the danger of an unmanned vehicle equipped with a state-of-the-art camera hovering overhead.

“The privacy threat from drones is very concrete and real. Some threats are very abstract and invisible, but to explain why drones are a privacy threat doesn’t take much explanation. There’s something uniquely spooky about them,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in technology-related privacy issues.

The debate already is joined in Washington and in state capitals across the nation.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working to integrate the crafts into American airspace by 2015, but it delayed beginning its drone test site program to study privacy implications. The agency is one of numerous arms of the federal government looking into the issue, though it’s unclear which department or agency ultimately will have jurisdiction over what drones can do.

The industry’s leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, has tried to tamp down public paranoia by adopting a “code of conduct” that calls on operators to exercise restraint and respect citizens’ privacy. It remains to be seen whether civilian drone users, specifically paparazzi and media outlets, will adhere to such guidelines.

For many legislators, voluntary codes of conduct aren’t enough. More than 20 states are considering or have passed laws regulating what drones can do and the types of information they can collect.

At least a half-dozen bills have been introduced in Washington addressing the same concerns.

“Americans like to be free. Americans like their privacy. And I don’t think we should have drones flying overhead if the police want to look at you in your backyard,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said recently.

All of the bills introduced in Congress lay out specific criteria for when police departments and other governmental arms can use drones, as well as requiring them to secure warrants before any of the information gathered by the craft can be used in an investigation or criminal prosecution.

But while drones are often painted as Big Brother’s main tool in conducting such surveillance, some scholars argue that they actually could help average citizens keep an eye on their government and may become as much of a defense of privacy as a threat.

“The federal government has had the power to look down on you from above for a long time, with satellites and reconnaissance flights. That’s always been around. What’s new is that I can buy a drone with a camera on it and fly it over downtown and get my own video,” said Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who has written extensively on technology and constitutional law.

“The basic rule for all of this should be that if the government can do it to its own citizens without a warrant, than citizens ought to be able to do it to the government,” Mr. Reynolds said. “[The government] is going to have to put up with people sending drones to follow around the [Drug Enforcement Administration]. And when that happens, they’re not allowed to say ‘we’re special.’”

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