Drones threat to civil liberties, Congress told
By The Christian Science Monitor
Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
With much of Capitol Hill riveted by IRS audits, AP phone records, and Benghazi emails, top scholars gathered to testify in a little-watched congressional hearing Friday about the growing threat the use of drones in U.S. airspace may pose to civil liberties.
They warned that unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the specter of a “significant new avenue for surveillance of American life,” as Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, characterized it for lawmakers on Friday.
“Many Americans are familiar with these aircraft — commonly called drones — because of their use overseas in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. But drones are coming to America,” Calabrese said.
Recent legislation requires the Federal Aviation Administration to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”
At the same time, the technology “is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful,” which has accelerated interest in deploying drones among police departments,Calabrese pointed out in testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.
The problem, he warned, is that “our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with constitutional values.”
So as drones proliferate, so too does the “specter of routine aerial surveillance in American life,” he argued, “a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
Is it really that dire, though, lawmakers wondered? After all, police departments in major metropolitan areas routinely use manned helicopters to search for criminals on the run, trigger rescue operations, and fight wildfires.
What's more, these manned aircraft are routinely equipped with far more powerful cameras than domestically used drones.
“Drones can be employed in an endless variety of civilian applications, the overwhelming majority of them beneficial,” noted John Villasenor, a fellow in government studies at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, in testimony before the committee.
Plus, in a time of fiscal constraint, drones are cheaper. For instance, after trying for months to cobble together enough money to buy a $25 million helicopter, the Grand Forks, N.D., police department turned to drones as a lower-cost alternative.
But the low cost of drones may also be part of the problem, Calabrese argued. Because manned aircraft are costly to buy, operate and maintain, “this expense has always imposed a natural limit on the government's aerial surveillance capability,” he said.
Now the prospect of cheap, small drones equipped with video surveillance “threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities,” he warned.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- From prison to presidency, Mandela reformed South Africa, ended apartheid
- Snowy owls travel south
- White House flops: Obama knew uncle
- United Auto Workers considers first dues hike since 1967
- FBI: Russian diplomats lied to get U.S. benefits
- Sandy Hook 911 calls fuel sensitivity debate
- Illinois overhauls its public pensions, cutting benefits for most workers, retirees
- Georgia cops suspended for cussing out rowdy bus of schoolkids