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 first and only known use of a drone in the arrest of a US citizen occurred in December 2011 in North Dakota, when the Nelson County Sheriff's Department asked to borrow one of the US Customs and Border Protection UAVs. The drone provided a good view of the three sons of the owner of a 3,000-acre farm who were involved in a standoff with law enforcement officers. As a result, police were able to tell that the brothers were unarmed, allowing them to enter the farm and arrest the brothers without the confrontation turning into a shootout.Skip to next paragraph
Whitehead imagines a day when drones equipped with sound cannons, which release painful high-decibel sound waves that cause crowds to disperse, could be dispatched by the government to political protests and used as well to "effectively stifle free speech."
The concern that such technologies can be misused to invade privacy and suppress free speech "is a legitimate fear," says UND's Frazier. "Anytime we increase the technological capabilities of the government there's a justifiable concern there. But I think these fears can be offset by the fact that the drones we're using have very limited capabilities."
Nevertheless, privacy concerns are what have prompted groups including the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain hundreds of documents from the FAA outlining who has been requesting to use drones in America's skies, and why.
Roughly 40 percent of the drone flight requests submitted to the FAA are from the US military. "They are flying drones pretty regularly – eight hours a day, five days a week – to train pilots so that they will be able to fly drones," says Jessica Lynch, a staff attorney for EFF.
These drones are equipped with infrared scanning capabilities and other surveillance gadgets. "Drones have quite a number of technologies on board, including thermal cameras and the ability to intercept communications," Ms. Lynch says. "If they are training pilots, they are training them in these surveillance tools."
FAA regulations stipulate that weaponized drones cannot fly in unrestricted US airspace. The agency also has specific parameters for law enforcement drones. Law enforcement groups, for example, must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times and must also fly at relatively low altitudes.
These are regulations with which the Grand Forks Sheriff's Department has become familiar in the three years since it began looking into using drones, first establishing an Unmanned Aerial Systems unit as part of the department and then applying for COAs to use the drones. The unit, which went fully operational Feb. 1, has conducted 250 simulated missions, but has yet to use a drone in an operation.
Certification tends to be a lengthy and arduous process, Frazier says, adding that there are also some parameters for usage that are meant to promote safety, but can make it tricky for law enforcement to do its jobs.
One provision, for example, is that the drones can fly only by day. Another early rule was that the police had to give 48 hours' notice if they were going to use the drones.
"It's tough to predict if there is going to be a fire tomorrow, or a bank robbery the day after tomorrow," he says. The department was able to convince the FAA to let it fly the drones on one-hour notice instead.
That said, Frazier understands the public's concerns about the use of drones. For that reason, Grand Forks established a 15-member committee – made up of one-third public safety officials, one-third UND faculty, and one-third community residents – to evaluate the use of drones and to troubleshoot questions and concerns of the public. Every law enforcement action involving the drones is to be reviewed by the committee.
Frazier told committee members that the department did not intend to ask for the ability to use the drones for covert surveillance. "We will not use them to, quote, spy on people," Frazier says. Even if that were the intention, he adds, "These small drones are not particularly robust platforms for covert surveillance. I think the public can't understand that my little UAV can only fly for 15 minutes, can't fly out of my line of sight, and can't fly in greater than 15-knot winds."