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

27 Comments on "U.S. UAV use raises privacy questions"

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

    Otherwise, who cares!

  2. 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?

  3. stephen russell | September 11, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Reply

    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?

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. … as long as they don't get a legal precedent for arming them, "who cares"

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. I will keep my bird gun handy.

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

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

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. rickythehalogeek | September 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply

    I welcome the Police UAV.

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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.

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

    Isn’t that the standard response?

  19. “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.

  20. 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.

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

  22. 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,

  23. 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*

  24. 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.

  25. It'll be a run on guns and camo netting with IR diffusion capability 'ere long…

    and TEMPEST proof windows and computer screen covers

  26. "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…

  27. 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.

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