By Columnist Jim Kouri
During a senate hearing, titled, “The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Considerations,” held on Wednesday, legal experts told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that within the next ten years thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, will be used to gather information from civilians by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Legal experts who testified, including Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project, Electronic Privacy Information Center, claimed that new privacy laws are required to protect Americans from public and private use of UAVs.
Drone construction and implementation is considered a “growth industry” in the U.S. with research continuing on production of a “stealth drone.” Unmanned aerial vehicles will be programmed to monitor crops, national parks, animal preserves and to assist police SWAT teams. As a result, federal and state privacy laws have been rendered anachronistic by advances in drone technology, experts said at the Senate hearing.
The testifying expert said:
“Current privacy protections from aerial surveillance are based on court decisions from the 1980’s, the Judiciary Committee was told, before the widespread drone use was anticipated. In general, manned helicopters and planes already have the potential to do the same kinds of surveillance and intrusive information gathering as drones, but drones can be flown more cheaply, for longer periods of time and at less risk to human life. That makes it likely that surveillance and information-gathering will become much more widespread.”
Meanwhile, Federal Aviation Administration officials claimed that upwards of 7,000 civilian drones will be in use within the next five years once the FAA grants them greater access to U.S. skies.
Congress had directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind in its development of safety regulations and isn’t expected to meet that deadline even though the FAA has granted more than two hundred permits to state and local governments, police departments, universities and others to experiment with using small drones.
The majority of police and civilian drones will be much smaller than those used by the military. The U.S. military uses everything from unarmed, hand-launched drones to UAS’s (unmanned aerial systems) that can fire Hellfire missiles and guided bombs.
As a result of sequestration – across-the-board budget cuts to the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement departments – Unmanned Aerial Systems may become more and more useful in maintaining a certain degree of security, according to former police commander Charles Nettinger, now a security consultant.
“Two or three unmanned aerial vehicles will be able to monitor entire cities even during the darkest nights. If need be, weapons systems could be mounted on them, but that isn’t a desirable outcome,” Nettinger said.
The Federal Aviation Administration authorizes UAS use on a case-by-case basis after conducting a safety review. FAA and the other federal agencies that have a role or interest in UAS are working to provide routine access for UAS into the national airspace system, according to a GAO report.
Jim Kouri, CPP, the fifth Vice President and Public Information Officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, has served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country.