States consider drone bans: Overreaction or crucial for privacy rights?

Charlottesville, Va., this week passed the nation's first ban on drones, and some states are considering similar measures. But drones can also be helpful tools, experts say.

Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Reuters
The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft is now a staple of US operations abroad. Some state and local politicians are worried about drone use in the US.

As scrutiny over US drone policy abroad grows, local and state officials are considering measures to ban their use at home.

Charlottesville, Va., passed the first anti-drone law in the nation Monday, and lawmakers in at least nine states from Massachusetts to California are considering some form of legislation restricting the use of drones.

The measures are largely symbolic, because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is charged with regulating US airspace, trumping state and local authorities, experts say. They add that drones can be extraordinarily useful, from crop monitoring to water management and a whole host of emergency and life-saving functions. But politicians' concerns speak to mounting questions about just how and when such powerful technology should be used.

The perception is that “the drone program has grown with so little oversight from Congress or lawmakers" that states have to "make up the slack,” says Michael Boyle, a political scientist at La Salle University in Philadelphia who has studied the use of drones. The state and local efforts arise from “the prospect of an increasingly intrusive nanny state – and it will lead to invasions of privacy by governments, but also by organizations such as universities, some of whom have already been given permits for drones.”

But Congress has taken steps to regulate drone use in the US. In reauthorizing the FAA in 2012, Congress tasked the agency with crafting a comprehensive plan for the use of drones in US skies by 2015. According to a FAA spokeswoman, the first proposals, specifically governing the use of drones below the size of 4.4 pounds, are due to Congress by Feb. 14.

“We are extremely mindful of privacy concerns, but we are also aware of the incredible things these UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] can do,” adds the spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity under a new agency policy.

In Charlottesville, concerns linger. The city council approved a two-year moratorium on UAVs in local airspace and called on both state legislators as well as Congress to take action.

“The rapid implementation of drone technology throughout the United States poses a serious threat to the privacy and constitutional rights of the American people,” the resolution reads. “Police departments throughout the country have begun implementing drone technology absent any guidance or guidelines from law makers.”

The local and state push to legislate is being driven more by fear than reason, says Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

“If people are thinking there are little drones spying through windows on every moment of their lives like some dystopian future, I’m here to tell you they have seen too many movies,” he says. “That technology is just not being put out there yet.”

The sorts of drones used by police departments and search-and-rescue emergency teams are very simple, he adds.

Of course, the super-sophisticated gear does exist. “It’s just not being used in our airspace,” Professor Waite says.

From his point of view, the lack of a comprehensive domestic drone policy is limiting their potential impact to help. “The technology is way out there in terms of development, what we are lacking is a real air policy,” he says.

Waite agrees there needs to be a balance between legitimate concerns over invasion of privacy and the possibilities of this new tool. “The key is to legislate the use, not the tool," he says. “We need to focus on how these things are used, not on banning the technology itself.”

In the end, that job will fall to the FAA, says Tom McDonnell, a professor at Pace Law School who has studied drone usage.

“This lawmaking at the state and local level is symbolic at best, because the FAA regulates airspace, and no matter what these localities choose to do the federal law supersedes local laws,” he says.

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