Drones over America. Are they spying on you?
Thousands of drones could be routinely flying over the United States within the next 10 years. They can help with law enforcement and border control, but they also raise questions about invasion of privacy.
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But picture thousands of drone aircraft buzzing around the United States – peering from the sky at breaches in border security, wildfires about to become major conflagrations, patches of marijuana grown illegally deep within national forests, or environmental scofflaws polluting the land, air, and water.
By some government estimates, as many as 30,000 drones could be part of intelligence gathering and law enforcement here in the US within the next 10 years. Operated by agencies down to the local level, this would be in addition to the 110 current and planned drone activity sites run by the military services in 39 states, reported this week by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a nongovernment research project.
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The presence of drones in the US was brought home Wednesday night when some people thought they saw a UFO along the Capitol Beltway in Washington. In fact, it was a disc-shaped X-47B UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air System) being hauled from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland for testing.
Civil libertarians warn that “unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life,” as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put it in a report last December.
“The technology is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful, interest in deploying drones among police departments is increasing, and our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” reported the ACLU. “In short, all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life – a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, highlights one potentially controversial part of US Air Force policy regarding military drones flown over the US.
“Air Force Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations, exercise and training missions will not conduct nonconsensual surveillance on specifically identified US persons, unless expressly approved by the Secretary of Defense, consistent with US law and regulations,” according to an instruction on oversight of Air Force intelligence.