Bills would require warrants for domestic drone surveillance

Companion bills in the House and Senate aim to clamp down on the potential use of unmanned aerial vehicles for domestic surveillance by requiring law enforcement agencies to first get a warrant in most cases.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) this week introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012, which had already been introduced in the House by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.)

In announcing his support for the bill, Paul compared UAV surveillance to other information-gathering methods used by law enforcement, contending that a warrant should be required under Fourth Amendment protections.


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“Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics," he said.

His bill would allow exceptions in three scenarios: Border patrol, instances when there is a high risk of terrorist attack, and when law enforcement officials have a “reasonable suspicion” of "imminent danger to life."

UAV technology, developed by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being increasingly deployed by civilian agencies. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have used drones to monitor hurricanes, measure sea ice and conduct marine mammal surveys. The U.S. Geological Survey has used them to track threatened waterfowl, and the Interior Department is considering using drones to check on dam safety.

But surveillance could be the most common use for drones, with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies putting them in the air. The military also expects to be using drones for training at bases around the country. Some estimates say that 30,000 domestic drones could be in use by the next decade.

Congress passed a law earlier this year to open domestic airspace to UAVs for civilian, scientific and public safety uses. The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to have regulations in place by 2015.

The possibility of all those UAVs filling the skies has raised some concerns about safety — a fear increased after a Navy drone crashed recently in Maryland — and privacy. The implications of UAV surveillance have drawn objections from both sides of the political landscape.

A new poll by Monmouth University found that a majority of Americans support using drones for border patrol, search-and-rescue missions and tracking down criminals, but oppose such uses as issuing speeding tickets.

UAVs will undoubtedly be used domestically; the question could be the circumstances under which they are used. These bills, if they move through Congress, could start the process of setting the parameters.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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