Privacy Risk or Future of Aviation? Five Perspectives on Domestic Drones.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 3 2013 6:04 PM

Privacy Risk or Future of Aviation? Five Perspectives on Domestic Drones.

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A Predator drone prepares to take off for a surveillance flight near the Mexican border

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

There might be a backlash mounting against drones across the United States—but not everyone is against the deployment of the controversial aircraft in domestic skies. That was the message that came out of an “engagement session” on drone privacy held today by the FAA, during which all sides had an opportunity to air their views.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The airspace regulator is currently working on how to integrate drones into domestic space over the next few years, and as part of that, it is soliciting comments from the public. Those who participated in the engagement session, held today by teleconference, represented divergent interest groups. Some were entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on drone technology, others rights activists or ordinary citizens concerned about privacy and safety.

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The opinions could broadly be summarized into the following five camps:

“Drones are a safety hazard.”

This was a view held by a number of people who called in to the session. A couple of current or former pilots expressed concerns that unmanned aircraft pose a risk to manned aircraft in American skies. One woman cited reports of military drone crashes overseas and said she was worried about the prospect of drones flying over populated areas where a crash could be catastrophic. Others pointed to cases where drones have been “hacked” as evidence that they are not yet safe enough to deploy routinely in domestic airspace.

Drones are the future of aviation.”

A couple of callers said they felt the negative aspects of drone technology—such as safety and privacy concerns—were being overblown amid a climate of hysteria. Those taking this position, some of whom cited a business interest in drones, felt that if the United States fails to embrace unmanned aircraft, it will get left behind as other countries adopt the technology. They said a thriving drone industry would have economic benefits—generating jobs—and added that the aircraft could also be used in disaster zones to assist the emergency services. Proponents of this argument say drones should not be treated fundamentally differently than manned aircraft when it comes to issues like aerial surveillance.

“Drones pose an unprecedented privacy risk.”

Many of those who contributed to the teleconference said they feared the privacy implications of drones. Some advocated a total ban on all uses of drone for surveillance, but the more popular position was to have use of all unmanned aircraft tightly regulated and subject to transparency measures. It was suggested that all drone pilots should have to file a “data collection statement” making clear the information that they would use the aircraft to capture; that law enforcement surveillance with sophisticated drone cameras should require a search warrant; and that a public website should publish data on who is using drones and where.

 “Americans have the right to own a drone.”         

One vocal participant in the session, who said he was from Missouri, argued that all Americans have the constitutional right to “deploy drones to surveil the conduct of people in and around their environment.” This position appeared rooted in an anti-Big Government stance strongly opposed to the introduction of any new laws and regulations that would govern how private citizens could and could not use drones.

“What about mission creep?”

Some contributors said they were worried the introduction of drones into domestic airspace would lead to a sort of incremental militarization, with increasingly advanced forms of the technology being use as part of draconian policing operations. A spokesman for the civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute, for instance, envisioned a dystopian future in which “no person, whether he is at a political rally, exiting a house of worship, or simply walking around downtown, will be safe from the prying eyes of these devices.”

*****

A number of bills are currently being proposed by lawmakers in response to fears over drone surveillance.  Since at least 2010, the Department of Homeland Security has been using military-style drones like the Predator to conduct surveillance of border areas. Some state law enforcement departments have used them, too—in one case, even to help arrest a farmer in North Dakota. The FAA has been given until September 2015 to integrate drones into the national airspace system, and it is currently working to develop six unmanned aircraft research and testing sites across the United States.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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