UAVs: Will Our Civil Liberties Be Droned Out?

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In Texas, a Montgomery county sheriff's office recently said it would deploy a drone bought with money from a Department of Homeland Security grant and was contemplating arming the drone with non-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets or Taser-style rounds.

The notion of these unblinking sentinels keeping watch over Americans isn't sitting well with the citizenry.

Columnist and Fox News pundit Charles Krauthammer recently stoked the anti-drone fires during a Fox News broadcast: "I would predict, I'm not encouraging, but I will predict, that the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in the this country."

Rodney Brossart didn't shoot down a drone but does hold the infamous title of "First Man in the U.S. Arrested With Drone Evidence." Brossart told U.S. News and World Report that he would fight the case, calling the use of a drone in his capture "definitely" illegal.

The comments section attached to virtually any online story on drones is a crowd-sourced early warning sign. People are upset and uncertain. Understandably, they don't want companies or the government hovering over their backyards.

Privacy and Transparency Rules Needed -- Fast

As America enters an era of unprecedented aerial surveillance, the Congress needs to go back and fix its mistake on the privacy front; the FAA needs to establish clear transparency guidelines that will allow a public accounting of drone operators and operations; and finally, the industry needs to step up and fill in the gaps with meaningful codes of conduct worthy of public trust.

Congress fumbled away the opportunity to build civil liberties protections into the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2011 which authorized domestic drones. They rushed the bill through without a thought about the rights of the American people. Congress should go back and right its mistake by giving the DOT authority to make privacy rules for government and non-government drones. (My organization, CDT, has published a set of recommendations for Congress regarding drone privacy.)

Two members of Congress, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) have sent a joint letter to the FAA expressing their concern at the inevitable collision course between drones and personal privacy.

The letter calls drone technology "invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections." It urges the FAA to "ensure that the privacy of individuals is fully protected and the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why."

But as it now stands, citizens lack a basic right to know who is operating the drones circling their houses, what information is being collected and how it will be used.

The FAA should develop transparency requirements as part of the drone licensing process. At a minimum, the agency should:

• Require that drone license applicants submit a written statement of the drone's surveillance capabilities and the intended use of information collected by the drone, • Make the documentation associated with the license application available online, with possible national security exceptions.

Such transparency guidelines are no panacea, but are a first step toward holding drone operators accountable.

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