UAVs: Will Our Civil Liberties Be Droned Out?

PHOTO: The new Boeing Phantom Eye unmanned drone, designed to stay airborne for days, travels on its first autonomous flight at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as "drones" — the same basic technology used to hunt al Qaeda in Afghanistan — are increasingly being flown in American airspace. Drones are already being used to patrol the border, track fugitives, and shoot epic aerial scenes by Indie filmmakers -- but the technology is likely to be used for much more in coming years.

With Congress enacting a law giving the go-ahead for the use of drones in U.S. airspace last February, the drone industry is now poised to deploy the technology to monitor everything from neighborhood safety, to political protests, to traffic conditions. The possibilities of using drones for airborne, real-time newsgathering haven't been lost on the media, either. Drones have many positive uses, such as aiding firefighters, dusting crops, or scouting hazardous areas for workers, but -- without privacy and transparency rules -- these powerful surveillance tools also have strong potential for misuse.

The FAA has already authorized 63 U.S. launch sites and issued more than 300 temporary licenses to operate these flying robots over American soil. The pool of approved drone operators includes government agencies such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Others include universities, local police departments, defense contractors, and individual towns, such as Herington, Ky., population 2,526.

All this is happening with little public awareness, and even less concern by the government or the drone industry for the privacy issues inherent in authorizing the deployment of what amounts to flying ad hoc surveillance networks in U.S. airspace. That is due in part to the law's lack of both transparency requirements and authority to promulgate privacy rules. There are few clear legal barriers to using drones to collect sensitive information about individuals for a wide variety of purposes -- commercial, law enforcement, idle curiosity -- and individuals have no right to even learn who is using drones to collect information about them or for what reason. In fact, the FAA only released information on the launch sites and identities of drone license holders after being sued under the Freedom of Information Act.

The FAA is moving full speed ahead to meet a set of firm deadlines mandated by law. Under the law, the FAA must work with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to:

• Expedite the current licensing process for government and non-government drones and make the process permanent, • Establish rules for the certification and operation of drones, and • Oversee the full integration of government and non-government drones in U.S. airspace.

The next deadline is Aug. 12, 2012, for the early integration of "safe" drones. At that time the DOT secretary has to determine if drones (government and non-government) can zip through the airspace without being a hazard to the public or national security. The secretary then must develop the rules that will allow these drones to launch.

Now Local Sheriff Has Air Support

Police departments across the U.S. are increasingly drawn to drone technology. It's relatively cheap, easy to use and versatile. Drones can carry facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open WiFi sniffers, and other sensors.

And they can be armed.

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