U.S. UAV use raises privacy questions

This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

U.S. lawmakers soon will have to address privacy issues raised by the use of UAVs in domestic airspace, a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says.

“The prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues ,” says the report, “Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative Responses,” released Sept. 6.

While UAVs have become a weapon of choice for Pentagon war planners in recent military conflicts, the unmanned systems are on the ascent for operations on or close to U.S. borders as well, the report notes.

“These unmanned aircraft are most commonly known for their operations overseas in tracking down and killing suspected members of Al Qaeda and related organizations,” CRS reports. “In addition to these missions abroad, drones are being considered for use in domestic surveillance operations , which might include in furtherance of homeland security, crime fighting, disaster relief, immigration control, and environmental monitoring.”

Although relatively few drones are currently flown over U.S. soil, CRS says, the Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA ) predicts that 30,000 UAVs will fill the nation’s skies in less than 20 years. “Congress has played a large role in this expansion,” CRS says. “In February 2012, Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which calls for the FAA to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by 2015.”

However, says CRS, “some members of Congress and the public fear there are insufficient safeguards in place to ensure that drones are not used to spy on American citizens and unduly infringe upon their fundamental privacy.”

CRS also reports, “These observers caution that the FAA is primarily charged with ensuring air traffic safety, and is not adequately prepared to handle the issues of privacy and civil liberties raised by drone use .”

In assessing the use of UAVs and possible violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, CRS reports , “the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.”

A court review of the reasonableness of UAV surveillance, CRS says, “would likely be informed by location of the search, the sophistication of the technology used, and society’s conception of privacy in an age of rapid technological advancement. While individuals can expect substantial protections against warrantless government intrusions into their homes, the Fourth Amendment offers less robust restrictions upon government surveillance occurring in public places and perhaps even less in areas immediately outside the home, such as in driveways or backyards. Concomitantly, as technology advances, the contours of what is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment may adjust as people’s expectations of privacy evolve.”

– By Michael Fabey

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • dubweiser101

    Just one question: Will this thing be able to see what I do in the shower?

    Otherwise, who cares!

    • blight_

      In 1984 they had telescreens in peoples houses, but not in the showers.

      Who cares?

      • Tiger

        “Blue Thunder.” Without the big gunship & the whisper mode…..

    • Jeff

      Yes, if you have a skylight as many modern bathrooms do.

  • tmb2

    There are plenty of holes and unanswered questions here. First off, how many of those 30,000 UAVs are simply military units conducting training? We use UAVs in military airspace in the US, but can’t go outside that pattern due to FAA regs which is one of the reasons for the legislation quoted above.

    As far as privacy concerns, the platform shouldn’t be the issue but rather what equipment that UAV is carrying. A manned police helicopter can probably mount the same cameras most UAVs use. I can see where a UAV passively scanning a neighborhood might touch a nerve, but isn’t that what patrol cars do now? On the other hand, it bothers me that someone walking down the street in London can’t pick their nose without a cop seeing it on a camera.

    If the police want to use a more invasive system like FLIR on a potential SWAT-raid suspect’s house, that could probably be covered in the same kind of warrants police or FBI use for searches, wiretaps, or other surveillance.

    Edit: Credit to Ben for reminding me of police not normally being able to see behind fences and into backyards. Again though, besides the cost of the camera what’s stopping helicopters from doing this now?

    • Tiger

      While not real time, Google Earth already can.

    • STemplar

      The police need to simple be somewhere for a reason. For example, if they are on patrol in an area that has had burglaries in fenced yards at night, walking an alley and looking over some fences is completely legal and does not require a warrant. Responding to a noise complaint and the noise is in the backyard, no warrant. Any situation where one would be required would probably be in conjunction with a search, which is typically going to include the home. As long as they are they for a reason related to public safety though, there is not going to be a warrant requirement for simply looking into a yard.

      If a news chopper can look into a yard, a passenger plane, a crop duster, then so can a police chopper, no warrant is required.

      There is no hard and fast phrase for when a warrant is required. Obviously for entering a home or business for a search it will be a requirement. Other circumstances it may not be required.

  • stephen russell

    Whose gonna regulate them, direct them & over what areas etc.
    Very scary
    Fine for along US Mex border or US Canada.
    within the US, how, where, when?

  • Ben

    Driving a cruiser by my house is one thing. Flying surveillance drones over the whole of my property (almost certainly without my knowledge) is another.

    I’m entitled to put up a fence in my yard so that I can go about my business at home privately. If a police officer wants to see what’s on the other side he has to receive a search warrant. Once you start flying drones over my house, you’re effectively bypassing my fence and scanning my property without a warrant, whenever and for however long you please. That’s a huge breach of privacy.

    I love UAVs for military applications, but I’m all about the government keeping its nose out of places it doesn’t need to be (both domestic and foreign).

    • tmb2

      After I wrote my comment I just thought about backyards and fences that police wouldn’t otherwise notice.

    • Tiger

      Police choppers fly by all the time.

      • Ben

        Like I said in a post below, police choppers are large and expensive to operate (and can usually only stay aloft for a couple hours at a time). This means there will always be a relatively low number of them flying around compared to smaller, cheaper, longer enduring drones. And that means that their use will almost always be prioritized to larger scale, better warranted tasks (like pre-planned stings and car chases) and not snooping on Bob to make sure he’s paying his taxes.

        Basically, if the costs are kept high and the numbers are kept few, they’ll have bigger fish to fry than me and you.

        • joe

          Just as a question, what do people perceive that the police would want to to with drones that they don’t already do with helicopters? Drones may be cheaper, longer, easier, but not *THAT* much!

          As noted, they are essentially the same thing, just with a more reasonable cost to operate. I can see this being used to cut into the PD’s (usually massive) budgetary problems, but do people really expect them to rush out and form a Department Of Spying On Bob’s Barbeque Nights?

    • STemplar

      Police dont need a warrant to look over a fence.

      • STemplar

        Thumbs down aside the police dont need a warrant to look over a fence. They just need a reason to be somewhere.

    • STemplar

      You have no right to the air space over your home. In some cases people don’t even buy the mineral rights to some property they buy, but the air space is clearly spelled out as federal jurisdiction.

      • Ben

        That’s mainly to track and divert aircraft for transportation safety purposes, it’s not meant as a free pass to park a surveillance drone over your house. You may not have a right to the skies, but you do have a right to privacy.

        • STemplar

          No it isn’t just for that, you have zero air space rights over your property, zero.

          • Ben

            Well, maybe that law need to be reconsidered in part. If it turns into a loophole for police/government agencies to invade the public’s privacy, then revisions need to be made. Anybody who fights for lack of privacy and encroachment on rights invites tyranny.

          • STemplar

            so what you are saying is while you sleep if there is a report of a prowler in your neighborhood you don’t want the police to be able to look over your fence as they look for the bad guy. You’re an idiot.

  • marc

    Points regarding police cruisers, police helicopters and other police surveillance are well made but I think something worse than the police using UAVs. What if the media, especially the more prurient and irresponsible outlets, get hold of UAVs? We all know that private companies love to sell their gear to the government. But what happens when the media companies that run Congress decide to let their reporters use them? THAT will be trouble and a threat to privacy.

  • HalP

    … as long as they don’t get a legal precedent for arming them, “who cares”

  • Speedy

    Street cameras (Red light one, ATM cameras etc) are always being used by the Police, FBI, NCIS, etc (In TV) to track crims all over the place. No one seems to mind the cameras being there in America. (We do not have that many yet in Australia).

    If the camera records something you do, and the police use it to arrest you etc, the judge gets to decide if it was an activity that the police would have needed a warrent to “see” normally. I suspect they may just use the defence of “it is cheaper and does the same stuff as a helicopter”.

    On the note of the press using these… they have had them for a few years so far.

    • Ben

      The only problem with that logic is that the police could witness an act on your property (unlawfully, without a warrant) and then they turn around and focus on getting a warrant through more traditional ways. They don’t need to use the drone footage as evidence, they only need to be tipped off by it.

      The good thing about helicopters is that they’re expensive, noisy, and have to be prioritized (generally to car chases and pre-planned stings). They’re not something you can loiter over anybody/everybody’s house with undetected. It keeps them honest.

      • STemplar

        You simply don’t get it do you, if the police in their operations don’t need warrants to observe. A fenced back yard does not have a protection under any law from people looking into it, anybody. Homes typically do, not yards.

  • Sanem

    street cameras, the camera on your phone or webcam, helicopters, satellites… the US already has plenty of ways to look into your backyard and even inside your home, and has had so for decades, manned or unmanned

    • Guest

      Would you mind if the police(or maybe your neighbor) hovered one over your next pool party?

  • sasquach

    I will keep my bird gun handy.

  • Vsshooter

    Sounds everyone will need a Bofors 40MM to take care of the prying eyes of Uncle Surgar!

  • Brandon

    It’s all good till someone hacks another drone and slams it into a building.

  • Musson

    Should news organizations and private citizens be allowed to fly their camera drones over private property? Does your nosy neighbor have the right to spy with her camera drone?

    • Tiger

      Every TV station has a News chopper already. You have no airspace rights.

      • BlackOwl18E

        Maybe we should start getting some though.

  • Jayson

    1 – If you don’t do bad things you have nothing to worry about.
    2 – According to that flying drones video, they don’t fly unless it’s to the sound of music. So when you hear a tune of sorts, behave until it goes away lol

    Honestly, this is an issue of regular surveillance. If there’s a surveillance and a cop can see into your yard or open window, this is the same extension. I find it funny how people demand no systems recording devices in their vehicles but there’s a rash of dashboard cam installations going on. It should be an OEM feature. But that’s another topic.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      “1 – If you don’t do bad things you have nothing to worry about.”

      Please note that the statement “Honest people have nothing to fear from the police” is currently under review by the Axioms Appeal Board.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

    • Mike

      What if the government is doing bad things? Or does being the employee or official of a government automatically make a person as holy as God himself? Ask the victims of the Gestapo, the KGB, Pol Pot’s regime, or any other government that turned tyrannical if they had nothing to worry about.

      • STemplar

        Ask the family of Polly Klaas if they think upstanding citizens that have served their time are monitored appropriately.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          How is this relevant to police use of drones? Are you arguing that the murder of Polly Klaas would not have taken place if the police had drones? Or that drones should be used as a kind of adjunct to the parole officer visits, to monitor paroled criminals? Or monitor people who have served their time, and are trying to re-integrate into society?

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

          • STemplar

            It speaks more to how much is too much monitoring and people whining about their privacy. They whine about drones and then something like the Polly Klaas incident happens and they whine that the government doesn’t do enough to protect people and then politicians pass some new law. I am pointing out how full of S most people are mostly.

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            In that case, I agree wholeheartedly with your point.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

      • marc

        Everybody talks about the Gestapo and the KGB. What about the Stazi? You know, the East German Secret Police? The guys who could actually teach the KGB a thing or two? Those guys were evil!

  • rickythehalogeek

    I welcome the Police UAV.

  • dee

    There’s a difference between a police officer driving by a citizen and observing his/her activities – this is part and parcel of life. However, the ability to put drones up in the sky that circle 24/7 recording everything gives the government the ability to easily tie all of these data together to create a profile or dossier of each and every citizen w/o probable cause.

    Collecting information, storing it, and gleaning details from it simply b/c it is out in public gives the govt. the ability to see our lives in a very granular manner over the course of several years and ultimately predict what we will do based on patterns we have in life. This is a disturbing concept and that type of a system shall violate the 4th Amendment. We’re going from Youtube to YouAreBeingWatchedTube.

    • xzimppledink

      Predictions can be wrong, George bush predicted the war in Iraq was over but it wasn’t. What happens when they predict you will molest a child and arrest you before it happens, and they were wrong. Don’t think it could happen? email me for proof it already has.

    • STemplar

      Define easily, because the DoD, which is by far the largest government agency bar none, doesn’t have the analytical ability to act in a timely fashion on the information they glean from their drones. Honesty monitoring the internet, if you believe in the evil government notion, is far and away a more effective tool for snooping on people. I personally think the government is a huge mentally lethargic bureaucratic pig that hasn’t got the cranial nimbleness to act on most information in its possession already, let alone the mountains that would be generated by this alleged 24 hour drone conspiracy.

  • Showey

    Further militirization of federal, state and local law enforcement. When the goverment turns its gaze inward toward its citizens BEWARE. 1984 here we come.

  • sberlins

    Yeah, I’m sure when the video’s of your daughter/wife/significant other become popular at the local police drone control center, you guys/gals won’t mind a bit. it’s just like having your own personal security watch…well, except for the leering and ‘greatest I’d hit that’ video mash-up.

    • BlackOwl18E

      sberlins, if you run for office I will vote for you. That’s the kind of attitude I want in our leaders who build the police force arsenal.

  • Steve

    If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.

    Isn’t that the standard response?

    • BlackOwl18E

      My question is why should they have that power to watch you in the first place? Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should they be given an automatic warrant to search and observe you?

      • Ben


      • STemplar


        • STemplar

          A warrant to watch? What are you talking about?

  • Mike

    “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” This statement is idiotic because it assumes that people who work for governments never do anything wrong. One could only believe such a thing if he had never opened a history book in his entire life.

  • Vaporhead

    Next thing you know, the local governments will be using it to cite homeowners for not mowing their backyards, having unregistered vehicles in the backyard behind your fences, and thermal imaging to watch you choke the chicken.

  • Jeffrey

    I know a few police officers, I am all for technology that lets them look before they leap. This will save lives.

  • Thunder350

    I’m saddened by the comments I see supporting UAV’s in our skies spying on us, yes there is some use for them. But it needs to be monitored and regulated heavily. This and along with Bush’s wiretap spying, and Obama signing the NDAA passed by our corrupt congress allowing the military to operate on American soil for the first time in history and arrest citizens indefinitely without warrant with very vague wording of “suspicion” of “terrorist activity”. Very sad to see what our country has become, we losing our freedom and liberty under the lies of its for our protection. Listen to our founding fathers words!

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” -Benjamin Franklin,

    • STemplar

      “Another reason for the decline in the market is the simple fact that no one has figured out how to manage the enormous amounts of data already being gathered by the existing fleet of UAVs (RPVs for Air Force folks), the head of Boeing Military Aircraft told us. “What’s happened is, the men and women aren’t flying, but they are on the ground processing data and no one has cracked the code on managing the data,” he said”

      If you’re truly concerned with your privacy, not surfing the web and not owning a cell phone are far better ways to protect yourself than worrying about a drone filming your boring back yard.

      • Thunder350

        Oh don’t worry, internet censorship is coming to hidden in the new TPP trade agreements. We defeated it before with all the outrage in the public ATCA, SOPA, and PITA bills. But the TPP is being negotiated behind closed doors and will affect countless nations with binding censorship laws that makes China’s “Great Firewall” seem open and free.

        If you believe our governments have our best interest in mind, your gravely mistaken, as history proves countless times.

        • STemplar

          Sure, they hate us, big conspiracy to keep us peasants down. That’s why they purify the water. Spray to suppress mosquito borne illnesses. Require auto manufacturers to build vehicles with minimum safety specs. Put up traffic lights. Bar people from driving drunk. Inspect the food supply. Regulate the nuclear industry. Put murderers, rapists, and molesters in prison. Stockpile billions in relief supplies for natural disasters. Force industry to not pollute willy nilly. Dispose of human waste safely. Inspect gas pumps to make sure you get a gallon of gas when you pay for a gallon of gas. All because there is a grand conspiracy to keep us down. Good grief.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          [Reaches up and checks position of tin-foil hat]

          Regards & all

          Thomas L. Nielsen

  • marc

    Let’s not forget that the big push for municipal and state police forces to use UAV comes not from the police themselves but from the manufacturers of UAVs. The manufacturers are doing their best to make the equipment smaller, cheaper and better suited to civilian needs. Selling them to the military is great. Lots of units sold and the maintenance contracts that go with it but you eventually run out of government organizations. By my last count there were only 4 branches of the armed forces. 5 if you count the Coast Guard. But there are THOUSANDS of police forces across the USA. *drool*

  • Vaporhead

    The American Sheeple will just say, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, what are you worried about?” Everytime I hear that, I want to punch them in the face.

    • blight_

      Considering most of us weren’t Sikh shopkeepers who got profiled like heck after 9/11, I guess we feel we have “nothing to fear” from a government gone wrong.

    • STemplar

      I want a drone monitoring you now……

  • blight_

    It’ll be a run on guns and camo netting with IR diffusion capability ‘ere long…

    and TEMPEST proof windows and computer screen covers

  • p4tri0t

    “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” – A. Lincoln

    Our freedoms seem to be dwindling every minute…

    • STemplar

      A quote from the President that sent the army into NYC to kill poor Irishman that didn’t want to be pressed into military service.

  • continuously i used to read smaller articles that also clear
    their motive, and that is also happening with this post which
    I am reading here.