Late last month I joined a few reporters for a roundtable with Sen. Rand Paul, and got a sense of how much oomph there is behind bills that would restrict domestic use of drones.
"It’s been actually a pretty popular issue," said Paul. He pointed to the bipartisan support for a bill that would have banned the EPA from flying drones over farmland. "We got 56 votes, which is pretty encouraging, and then our bill to require warrants I think has gotten a lot of discussion particularly on the heels of people like Nanny Bloomberg saying how big of a drink we can have in our backyard, how Big of a Gulp we can drink. I think people are concerned about things like that, wanting to know about every aspect of our life. And I think when you put it in words or in terms such as 'people will be flying over your backyard barbecue seeing if you’re wearing the right kind of bathing suit, drinking the right kind of drink, what you’re smoking, what magazines you might me reading' -- a drone can find out all kinds of stuff about you you may not want everybody to necessarily to know about."
The bathing suit thing sounded over the top to me, so I asked whether Paul was speaking metaphorically. "There is some debate in the law about what an open space is," he explained, "whether not you can surveil open spaces. And I’m not a big fan of that either. Could a rancher use [drones] to monitor their own cattle? Sure. Or private companies. I just don’t want the government going every farm. Rep. Austin Scott -- who’s the sponsor in the House -- his example was 'I don’t want them flying over my farm to find out whether I’m wearing my orange vest, that’s my own damn business.' But also I don’t want them snooping on anything on my property, really. If they think I’m a polluter, and they think I’m dumping something in the stream I shouldn’t be, simply get a warrant. A warrant is not hard to get. I guarantee at any moment in the day if you think someone’s dumping something in the river, you call a judge you’ll get a warrant. But they don’t want to go through the hassle of even picking up the phone. But if you don’t do that, your danger is that they’re going to get involved in every aspect of what you do on your property. They have drones that are less than an ounce, they have one that they say is shaped like a maple seed that could fly up and land on your windowsill and they could see through the window and look in and see what you read. I really think that of all the things you read in 1984 and Brave New World, that you read and said 'Oh god, this would be terrible. Fortunately the technology doesn’t exist for Big Brother to do this.' Well guess what? Now Big Brother has that technology and that’s why it is pretty worrisome."
His proposed solution, working its way slowly through the Senate -- demanding warrants before any drone use. "You have to have probable cause even if you’re the EPA. It’s not that I’m for anyone dumping anything. If you’re dumping benzene in the river, and somebody. For example, it should be pretty easy. I could be a half of a mile down from the chemical plant, if I take a water sample and there’s benzene in it, that’s probable cause that you should get a warrant and it shouldn’t be that hard. Warrants are almost never turned down. Look at FISA. But they're at least a step that separates the police from the judicial arm, and you get somebody whose not the one carrying the gun making the decision on the warrant and that was really important to our founding fathers and I think still is important. Many conservatives who want to protect the Second Amendment don’t care that much for the Fourth Amendment. I think somebody has to care about the Fourth Amendment."
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