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Domestic Drones Draw Opposition Across Party Lines

Op-Ed: The use of drones has achieved widespread success on the battlefield and proven popular among military commanders. Now the unmanned vehicles are showing up in more and more domestic situations: car chases, along our borders, and routine city surveillance. And thankfully, they are managing to accomplish something seldom seen in Washington – agreement across party lines.

Groups as disparate as the libertarian Rutherford Institute and the progressive American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that the widespread use of drones within our borders represents a profound and perilous intrusion into American life. John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute was right when he observed, “What we used to know as privacy is finished. Big Brother is here to stay.”

Invoking images of Skynet in the Terminator movies, drones are fast becoming a common sight in the skies over our land. As of November 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration listed 345 active drone licenses which analysts believe will balloon to 30,000 by 2020. The majority of these drones will be little more than replacements for the familiar eye-in-the-sky news helicopters common in major cities. But their size, ability to monitor the skies for hours on end, and in some cases, carry arms is what concerns parties across the political spectrum.

Lawmakers in at least 13 states will examine bills this year to place strict limits on how government entities can employ drones. Up till now, no state has made such regulations a part its law but it looks as though that is about to change.

Members of Montana’s Senate Judiciary Committee met this week in Helena to consider Bill 150, a measure that would place tight restrictions on drones. If the law passes, it will block state and local government entities from possessing weaponized UAVs and will prevent them from using evidence obtained via drones. Victims of the misuse of drones would also be allowed to sue parties both professionally and personally.

State Sen. Robyn Driscoll, a Democrat, favors the bill because she is concerned about police “fishing expeditions” driven by drone technology. According to Driscoll, “The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions and abusive use of these tools in way that could eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities.”

Florida Republican State Senator Joe Negron has introduced a similar though more narrow bill before Sunshine State legislators. Initially approved by the state’s Criminal Justice Committee, Negron’s bill would preclude law enforcement agencies from using drones to collect evidence without first obtaining a warrant from a judge.

“Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn’t be hovering in the sky, monitoring Floridians,” said Negron. “That’s not something we believe is an appropriate role for government.”

Agreement only goes so far between Libertarians, conservatives and progressives when it comes to how drones should be limited. Where all groups agree is that the use of drones should require the same warrants all other law enforcement intrusion requires.

Passage of these laws might come down to differing language of the Driscoll and Negron bills. The opposition agrees that law enforcement officials should obtain judge-approved search warrants before deploying drones for criminal investigations, as allowed in Negron’s bill.

Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute disagrees. “Requiring a warrant is incredibly stupid,” he warns, “it won’t work.”  He warns that a proliferation of drones will collect immense swaths of information, including wi-fi data and secret passwords and license plate numbers. Equipped with right components, they’ll look through walls, which he believes bypasses the need for warrants.

Whitehead has spent the past two years researching drones, their past, present and, most importantly, their future. During his study, he authored model legislation that he sent to the 50 state legislatures. He said he’s very serious about restraining the surveillance state, though he knows it cannot be fully barred. “There will be drones everywhere,” he said. “There’s too much money to be made.”

The race to keep even with technology has been with mankind since the beginning. What has changed is the speed at which innovations take hold; so fast that we have little time to evaluate the value of those changes. In eight years, the number of drones will have increased 100 fold. It’s time to put the brakes on law enforcement and other agencies until better safeguards to our personal liberties have been put into place.

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