Domestic Drones and Spying

Posted: Sep 12, 2012 8:00 AM

Should you be worried?


From Townhall Magazine's September feature, "Domestic Drones and Spying," by Justice Gilpin-Green:

There are two types of people that have anything to fear from domestic drones: those who have done something wrong … and those who haven’t.

In the next 10 years, there will be a projected 15,000 drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, in the U.S. This projection is cited by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), an office created under a legislative initiative and designed to foster collaboration among government agencies, the private sector and academia on air transportation systems.

Technology that was used in one of the first Predator drones operated by the U.S. in Bosnia in 1995 has now advanced and is used domestically to guard the border— but the drone was also recently used in the arrest of North Dakota resident Rodney Brossart. According to a U.S. News & World Report article, Brossart was arrested by the Grand Forks police department SWAT team using a drone borrowed from Homeland Security to pinpoint his location on his 3,000 acre farm. Although the team had obtained a search warrant prior to the arrest, this case in the tiny town of Lakota, N.D., has drawn attention to the possible future complications from implementing Predator drones into the National Airspace System, or NSA (the network of United States airspace and the systems that are related to or make it possible to operate within that space). The Federal Aviation Administration usually has jurisdiction over granting certain entities permission to use drones within the NAS.

The technology of an unmanned tracking device sounds like a magnificent scientific tool to track terrorists, but the possibility of the government using this to track citizens is disconcerting, and, should it happen, potentially unconstitutional in some cases.

“I draw a sharp distinction between national security threats, which have a different weight on society, and personal or criminal behavior,” Newt Gingrich said in an interview with Townhall. “I think the traditional American position of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has to do with anything besides national security, so I’d want to have very strict rules about how drones can be used, under what circumstances, for what purposes.”

However, the reality is that it’s not just the federal government with access to these potential tracking devices to ward off potential national security threats. Now, local police departments can be authorized, along with other public entities like the Washington State Department of Transportation.

In April of 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the protection of individual rights in the digital world, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on the grounds that the public deserved to know who received FAA drone authorization. Despite the government acknowledging it received the request, nine months passed without so much as a peep from it.

Finally, in January of 2012, EFF felt compelled to file suit against the Department of Transportation. Citing “factual allegations” about drones, including their capabilities and the market for them, they also discussed the way in which drones were being regulated at that time. Stating that Congress had also been “pushing the FAA to expand authorizations for drones,” the EFF said that a loosening of those authorization rules could happen as early as that month.

Meanwhile, a month later, on Valentine’s Day, President Obama showed no love for the Fourth Amendment when he signed legislation known as “the FAA Bill.” It requires the FAA—which had previously been slow to grant use of unmanned aircraft beyond military testing—to use one year to come up with a plan on how to “accelerate the integration” of the unmanned aerial systems into the National Airspace System. This basically meant the FAA was “mandated by Congress to issue drone certificates to anybody who could prove that they could fly them safely,” according to Trevor Timm, activist at EFF.

Read more about domestic drones and whether Americans should be concerned about drones' future role in the United States by ordering the September issue of Townhall Magazine.