Drones over America: public safety benefit or 'creepy' privacy threat?
Drones are not just for tracking terrorists abroad. Some 327 are authorized to fly in US airspace – most for military training. But as their numbers grow, so is domestic scrutiny.
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The growth in drones is big business. Some 50 companies are developing roughly 150 systems, according to The Wall Street Journal, ranging from miniature flying mechanical bugs to "Battlestar Galactica"-type hovering unmanned airplanes. It's an industry expected to reach some $6 billion in US sales by 2016.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Drones: America's unmanned Predators
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Those forecasts notwithstanding, neither the FAA nor the association of UAV operators says it knows how many nonmilitary drones are operating in the United States. The ACLU is seeking that information.
The growth in the development of UAVs by both private companies and the US government has not gone unnoticed, creating a backlash in some communities.
In Seattle last month, community members quashed their city's drone program before it even got started. The program was being considered for search-and-rescue operations and some criminal investigations, but was referred to by protesters as "flying government robots watching their every move."
Mayor Mike McGinn spoke with Police Chief John Diaz, "and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program," the mayor wrote in a statement. The drones were returned to the manufacturer.
Just days earlier, Charlottesville, Va., had become the first city in the country to pass a "no-drone zone" resolution, putting in place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within Charlottesville limits.
"The big concern for us is that they're going to be everywhere," says John Whitehead, an attorney and president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization in Charlottesville, which launched a preemptive fight against drones before the city council.
The move followed an Obama administration memo justifying the use of drones overseas to kill US citizens suspected of taking part in terrorist activities. "The president says you can take out American citizens in foreign countries," Mr. Whitehead says. "Well, if you can do that, you can take out somebody here as well."
On March 6, Attorney General Eric Holder may have reinforced such fears in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee when he refused to rule out the use of armed drones on US soil in an emergency "to protect the homeland."
If it all has an air of hysteria about it – Mr. Holder said there are no plans for the domestic use of armed drones and called the scenario "entirely hypothetical" and unlikely – privacy groups point to California's Alameda County, where officials insisted they wanted drones for search-and-rescue missions. An internal memo that surfaced from the sheriff's department, however, noted the drones could be used for "investigative and tactical surveillance, intelligence gathering, suspicious persons, and large crowd-control disturbances." The county dropped its plans.