Congress Approves Domestic Use of Aerial Surveillance Drones

Published May 31, 2016

Congress passed – and President Obama is expected to sign – House Resolution 658, the “Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act,” which would, in part, allow domestic use of aerial drone spy planes. HR 658 was sent to the President on February 8. The resolution has sparked opposition from privacy advocates who claim employing drones for domestic surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

According to a poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, released February 13, 52 percent of voters oppose the use of surveillance drones compared to 30 percent who favor it and 17 percent who are undecided.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberty Union’s Speech, Policy and Technology Project, says that drone deployment is “bad from the point of view of the Constitution because the founding fathers put in place rules to prevent us from being surveilled 24/7. They’re bad from a policy perspective because no one wants to be constantly watched.”

$64 Billion Funding privacy-issue writer Kashmir Hill says that it will be nearly impossible to oppose drones because “the battle for public privacy has already been lost.” She cites the prevalence of security cameras in U.S. cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

“The FAA has tried to restrict [drones], but there is a lot of demand from Congress, the drone industry and law enforcement to speed up their deployment,” Hill said. “Congress just funded them to the tune of $63 billion and tasked the FAA to work out how drones will be used commercially before 2015.”

Battery-powered drones can stay in the air between 15 minutes to 30 minutes, with some having the capability of staying airborne for up to an hour-and-a-half. The bigger drones, such as those employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, can fly nonstop for 36 hours.

According to Hill, there are already plenty of private companies and industries that would like to use drones. The oil and gas industry wants to use them to monitor their pipelines and equipment, and to be able to see where to drill in the future. Commercial farms could use them to track livestock and survey their fields. Power companies could use them to check their lines. Google could use them for mapping purposes. And Federal Express and United Parcel Service could use them to deliver packages.

“I imagine the public would get very annoyed if every police department had 300 drones flying over their city every day,” says Hill.

Expand to Routine Use
“No one is challenging the notion that a police officer does not have the right to trail a suspect for a couple of blocks,” says the ACLU’s Jay Stanley. “However, when drones can surveill you 24/7, and you don’t even know they’re there, then it becomes a much bigger legal issue,” he says.

As with any new technology, as the novelty wears off and people start seeing the unintended consequences of constant surveillance, Stanley predicts a backlash from the public. “People don’t want to be watched all the time,” he says.

Miami-Dade County will be the first police department in a major metro area to deploy drones. It will be the vanguard of metro police departments using this technology, and more than likely, the first to have to sort out the thorny legal and privacy issues.

“The police have it in their minds that no one could oppose certain legitimate uses, like searching for a lost child in the woods, following a dangerous suspect, or gathering information from a suspected crime scene without putting human life at risk,” says Stanley.

“But we know from history that this technology will expand into routine surveillance. We need to be wary when proponents suggest only the benefits of a new technology,” he says.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info

“FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act,” House Resolution 658, Presented to President Obama on February 8, 2012:

“Voters Are Gung-Ho for Use of Drones But Not Over the United States,” Rasmussen Reports, February 13, 2012: