The operation outside Austin presaged what could prove to be one of the most far-reaching and potentially controversial uses of drones: as a new and relatively cheap surveillance tool in domestic law enforcement.
For now, the use of drones for high-risk operations is exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration - which controls the national airspace - requires the few police departments with drones to seek emergency authorization if they want to deploy one in an actual operation. Because of concerns about safety, it only occasionally grants permission.
But by 2013, the FAA expects to have formulated new rules that would allow police across the country to routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground - high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.
Such technology could allow police to record the activities of the public below with high-resolution, infrared and thermal-imaging cameras.
One manufacturer already advertises one of its small systems as ideal for "urban monitoring." The military, often a first user of technologies that migrate to civilian life, is about to deploy a system in Afghanistan that will be able to scan an area the size of a small town. And the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence to seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.
But when drones come to perch in numbers over American communities, they will drive fresh debates about the boundaries of privacy. The sheer power of some of the cameras that can be mounted on them is likely to bring fresh search-and-seizure cases before the courts, and concern about the technology's potential misuse could unsettle the public.
"Drones raise the prospect of much more pervasive surveillance," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "We are not against them, absolutely. They can be a valuable tool in certain kinds of operations. But what we don't want to see is their pervasive use to watch over the American people."
In a 1986 Supreme Court case, justices were asked whether a police department violated constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure after it flew a small plane above the back yard of a man suspected of growing marijuana. The court ruled that "the Fourth Amendment simply does not require the police traveling in the public airways at this altitude to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye."
In a 2001 case, however, also involving a search for marijuana, the court was more skeptical of police tactics. It ruled that an Oregon police department conducted an illegal search when it used a thermal imaging device to detect heat coming from the home of an man suspected of growing marijuana indoors. [Don't worry, though. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the police can bust down a door and enter your property without a warrant if they smell marijuana or hear sounds that are suggestive of destruction of evidence. The case revolved around the warrantless search of an apartment in Kentucky, Lexington. Bye-bye 4th Amendment.]
When KPRC-TV in Houston, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., discovered a secret drone air show for dozens of officers at a remote location 70 miles from Houston, police officials were forced to call a hasty news conference to explain their interest in the technology.
A senior officer in Houston then mentioned to reporters that drones might ultimately be used for recording traffic violations.
And drones aren’t just buzzing over the Adirondacks. The proposal to begin training missions there is part of a bigger push to build a drone infrastructure for flying missions throughout the United States. So new drone bases are being built. The FAA is setting aside airspace for drone flights.
The latest example is the amendment proposed by Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to the "FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Act" (S.223) that would increase the number of "National Airspace System" test sites from four to ten. At least one of these sites would have to include a "significant portion" of public land.
Although it is hard to predict where the drone infrastructure will grow, if other defense contracting projects are a reliable guide, the drone-ification of America will probably continue until there is a drone aerodrome in every state ...
Indeed, the CBC notes that drones will start flying coast to coast:
Given that the national security apparatus has been hijacked to serve the needs of big business and to crush dissent, it's not far-fetched to think that information gained from drones will be used for purposes that are not necessarily in the best interests of the American people.
And as I noted earlier today, the U.S. is allowing military operations within the United States.
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