by Jeremy Leaming
While the Obama administration has justifiably been knocked for its secretive and deadly use of Reaper and Predator drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, the private and public use of drones here at home is in need of some serious discussion say groups and individuals concerned about eroding privacy rights.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today a law professor and Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (epic.org) urged lawmakers to revamp the nation’s privacy laws to ensure that public and private use of drones do not shred what privacy rights we have left.
Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law, told the committee that citizens have good reason to be concerned about the increasing use of drones for an array of purposes. During his testimony, Calo reiterated the need for the nation to update laws to protect privacy – technology is fast outpacing laws protecting privacy.
“Drones have a lot of people worried about privacy – and for good reason,” Calo told the Senate committee. “Drones drive down the cost of aerial surveillance to worrisome levels. Unlike fixed cameras, drones need not rely on public infrastructure or private partnerships. And they can be equipped not only with video cameras and microphones, but also the capability to sense heat patterns, chemical signatures, or the presence of a concealed firearm.
“American privacy law,” he continued, “meanwhile, places few limits on aerial surveillance. We enjoy next to no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, or from a public vantage like the nation’s airways. The Supreme Court has made it clear through a series of decisions in the nineteen-eighties that there is no search for Fourth Amendment purposes if an airplane or helicopter permits officers to peer into your backyard. I see no reason why these precedents would not extend readily to drones.” See Calo’s written testimony here.
The drones discussed at today’s hearing are not like the types employed overseas in ongoing counterterrorism operations. (A subcommittee led by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) will explore the drone war and its intersection with constitutional rights in April.) The drones are much, much smaller and have been used for police surveillance and by public safety agencies to assess damages from storms, study hurricanes, tornados and flooding for example. Many of those drones weigh mere pounds and are operated in a limited fashion. Michael Toscano, president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), told the committee that the industry does not support “weaponization” of civil drones. (He also informed the lawmakers that the industry does not refer to the technology as drones, they may be pilotless, but they are operated by humans from nearby control centers. (Sen. Leahy said he and others on the committee would refer to drones as drones regardless of what the industry dubs them.)