During the last several years, questions have arisen about drones being used as a surveillance-gathering tool in the United States against its citizens. These concerns have caught the attention of legislators, both in the U.S. Congress and in state government.
In the U.S., drones are mostly associated with military uses, but other government agencies and businesses, private corporations, and individuals are finding numerous uses for drones. One example of drone use is in the effort to protect our nation’s borders. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has been using drone surveillance since 2005. They currently own ten drones.
Drones are getting smaller in size and are now more cost efficient. With this affordability, it is predicted that in the next five years there will be a substantial increase in the number of drones used in our nation. They are a powerful and highly sophisticated surveillance tool and are capable of collecting valuable information with high-tech systems, such as cameras and other devices. Even now they can scan a license plate from the air.
In January of 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration, seeking a release of information about drone usage in the United States. As a result of this lawsuit, the FAA had to release names of all public and private groups who have applied to fly drones domestically. According to this information, there are hundreds of drones in operation in the United States. The documents that were released describe the location and the identity of owners of domestic drones throughout the country. The Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Homeland Security are some governmental entities that operate drones. In addition, here are several university research departments who use them, as well as several of our nation’s larger cities’ police forces—such as Seattle, Houston, and Miami.
This week the Missouri House Committee on Agribusiness held a hearing on House Bill 46, otherwise known as the Preserving Freedom from the Unwarranted Surveillance Act. This bill would prohibit any person or state department—except law enforcement—from deploying unmanned aircraft over private property without prior consent. Police officers or law enforcement officials would have to have a warrant to use drones over private property. If a drone were involved in an active chase, then the warrant could be foregone.
Why am I writing about drones? In Missouri this past June, rumors surfaced that the EPA had dispatched drones from Kansas City, Kansas to investigate livestock operations who were believed to be polluting ground water. As it turned out, the EPA was flying small, piloted planes for this purpose in Iowa and Nebraska but not in Missouri.
Missouri and Nebraska are two of about eleven states—including Texas—that are considering anti-drone legislation this year. Texas has introduced the Texas Privacy Act, a piece of legislation that is being introduced there, that would ban the use of drones over private property. Though there are no Missouri state agencies involved in the use of drones at this time, privacy groups are concerned that the domestic use of drones for surveillance will lead to widespread drone misuse (spying) against our nation’s citizens and infringe upon our right to privacy.
Drone usage in the United States has many legitimate, helpful uses, not only in crime prevention and investigation, but also for search and rescue operations, natural disaster and weather information-gathering purposes, and in fighting wildfires. But are the increased uses of drones in this country becoming a threat to our personal privacy rights? Is this useful piece of technology worth us taking a chance of having some of our privacy compromised? Could drone usage open the door for further intrusion into our personal, private spaces?
Today in the United States, individuals have very little, if any, legal privacy protection from aerial surveillance conducted from drones or airplanes. This fact was brought out in the Supreme Court decision Florida vs. Riley, that held that police officials do not need a warrant to observe individual’s property from a public air space. What can be garnered from this decision is that individuals do not have the right to property privacy from police observation in the air. The key point here is no warrant is required for police observation from public air apace.
The debate on this issue will prove to be interesting, especially since it is dealing with what is, for the most part, uncharted territory for many of us in the state. When privacy rights cross paths with high tech surveillance equipment, we must be careful of the fine line between information and privacy.