Congress is poised to give final passage to legislation that would give a big boost to domestic unmanned aerial surveillance — aka “drones.”
As we explained in our recent report, drone technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, and there is a lot of pent-up demand for them within the law enforcement community. But, domestic deployment of unmanned aircraft for surveillance purposes has largely been blocked so far by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is rightly concerned about the safety effects of filling our skies with flying robots (which crash significantly more often than manned aircraft).
As we also explained in our report, the FAA is under pressure to loosen the reins and permit broader deployment of drones by government agencies.
One result of that pressure is this legislation (H.R. 658 — see conference report for more details), which authorizes appropriations for the FAA through fiscal 2014. Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft. This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.
Congress — and to the extent possible, the FAA — need to impose some rules (such as those we proposed in our report) to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this technology will otherwise lead to. We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move.
On Friday, the House gave final passage to the legislation. House approval came on a quite partisan vote, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposing. The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill later today.
Here are details on what the bill would do in terms of drones:
The bottom line is: domestic drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power — like all government power — needs to be subject to checks and balances. We hope that Congress will carefully consider the privacy implications that this technology can lead to.
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