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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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Out of concern that average citizens could be filmed by sensors on the aircraft, one of the committee's first acts was to instruct police to post road signs warning the public when UAVs are in use.

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Yet some of the conversations EFF's Lynch has had with other law enforcement agencies haven't been as reassuring about privacy, she says. "We've talked to police about this, and they've said, 'Well, we're going to fly the drones in public airspace, and if you walk around in public you don't have an expectation of privacy in your movements.'

"While that might be true for a police officer following you down the street, I don't know if that applies when a drone can fly over and surveil everybody walking down that street for an extended period of time," Lynch says.

"You can make the case that drones are helping law enforcement better do their jobs for less [cost] and we should incorporate it," she adds. "As technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, it's tempting to use it all the time."

That is the fear of Texas state lawmaker Lance Gooden, who in February proposed some of the toughest anti-drone legislation in the country. It would prevent drone operators from collecting images, sounds, and smells – or hovering over any home – without permission.

"Two to four years from now, it'll be impossible to get legislation passed because every law enforcement agency will want drones," says Mr. Gooden. While the drone lobby is growing, it is not as powerful as it will become, he adds.

Currently, his bill has the support of 101 of the 150 members of the state Legislature. But some longtime drone experts say such laws are overkill and could impede growth of technology that is useful and relatively inexpensive.

"The ordinances that have been passed are absolutely absurd," says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the first deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance for the US Air Force. "And what's precluded are the very valuable civilian applications in terms of traffic control, firefighting, disaster response, border security, the monitoring of power lines – the list goes on and on."

As for privacy concerns, "I can't think of another way of saying it, but that they are unfounded," Deptula adds. "All you have to do is look up in any major metropolitan city and see the cameras all around. And have they ever heard of satellites? Where do they think Google maps come from?"

Frazier concurs. People with a good zoom lens have better cameras than do his small drones, he adds, pointing out that one of the Grand Forks Sheriff's Department's drones has a simple off-the-shelf Panasonic.

The average GPS-enabled cellphone can now track people and their movements to within a few feet, he notes.

That said, "I understand what people mean when they say it's 'creepy,' " Frazier says. "I value my privacy as much as anyone does – it's very sacred in this country." Even if they could do it legally, law enforcement agencies would be making a big mistake using drones for covert surveillance – for the time being, he adds.

"It would be a fatal mistake at this point. We really need to take a crawl, walk, run approach. To go to covert surveillance brings us to a run," Frazier says of the law enforcement community. "If that means we're not Buck Rogers in the 21st century, we're comfortable with that."

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