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Look Up: The Drones Are Watching You

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

With hundreds if not thousands of unmanned drones operating within U.S. borders, many citizens are not only concerned about privacy issues, but also over the potential use of lethal force by the unmanned aircraft. Drones have been used overseas to target and kill high-level terrorist leaders and are also being used along the U.S.-Mexico border in the battle against illegal immigration. But these drones are now starting to be used domestically at an increasing rate.

The Federal Aviation Administration has allowed several police departments to use drones across the U.S. They are controlled from a remote location and use infrared sensors and high-resolution cameras. Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas now says his department is considering using rubber bullets and tear gas that can be deployed from its drone. “Those are things,” he said, “that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out and in certain situations it might be advantageous to have this type of system on the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle].”

This proliferation of drones has led to an unusual coalition between libertarian and conservatives with the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s simply not appropriate to use any kind of force, lethal or non-lethal, on a drone,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU, told CBSDC.

Crump says one of the principal problems with the use of drones is the remote locations where they are operated from. “When the officer is on the scene, they have full access to info about what has transpired there,” Crump explained. “An officer at a remote location far away does not have the same level of access.”

The ACLU has also raised concerns about potential drones malfunctioning and falling from the sky, adding that they are keeping a close eye on the use of these unmanned aircraft by police departments. “We don’t need a situation where Americans feel there is in an invisible eye in the sky,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at ACLU.

Joshua Foust of the American Security Project says domestic drones should not be armed. “I think from a legal perspective, there is nothing problematic about floating a drone over a city.” But Foust also said, “In terms of getting armed drones, I would be very nervous about that happening right now.”

Chief Deputy McDaniel said his community should not be worried about the department using a drone. “We’ve never gone into surveillance for sake of surveillance unless there is criminal activity afoot. Just to see what you’re doing in your backyard pool — we don’t care.”

But for the ACLU, the concern is just too great that an American’s constitutional rights will be trampled with the use of drones. “The prospect of people out in public being tased or targeted by force by flying drones where no officers is physically present on the scene,” Crump says, “raises the prospect of unconstitutional force being used on individuals.”

Questions like this are beginning to concern some members of Congress, which is looking at proposals that would limit the amount of information unrelated to a crime drones could collect. One bill from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would require private drone operators to inform the government of any data collected by drones and would require law enforcement to “minimize” the collection of “information and data unrelated to the investigation of a crime.” The draft bill says there “is the potential for unmanned aircraft system technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections.”

Best estimates are that by the end of 2012, as many as 30,000 drones and unmanned aerial vehicles will be doing a variety of tasks — border security, disaster relief, search and rescue, counter-terrorism, and looking down on people and streets on behalf of police departments.

But just what will they be looking for, and what sophisticated devices will they carry? And how deeply will they peer into the life of the average American? These questions have yet to be answered, and to this point judges have proven to lean toward permission of such devices by law enforcement in actions against American citizens.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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