Drones are wildly popular on the battlefield. Now they can claim victory elsewhere. The use of drones within U.S. borders—in car chases, to monitor wildfires, or for simple surveillance—is uniting political parties and people more often at odds.
Their concern: the widespread use of drones among civilians represents a deep and dangerous intrusion into American life.
“What we used to know as privacy is finished,” said John Whitehead, a constitutional scholar and president of Virginia-based Rutherford Institute. “Big Brother is here to stay.”
Both the progressive American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Rutherford Institute cheer legislative efforts to place strict limits on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. And, prodded by privacy groups, state lawmakers nationwide—Republicans and Democrats alike—have launched an all-out offensive against the unmanned aerial vehicles.
And to think, only the prospect of complete upheaval of America’s strong tradition of privacy rights spurs bipartisanship.
In at least 13 states, lawmakers this year will examine bills to place strict limits on how government entities can deploy drones. No state has embedded such regulations into law.
Drones are already everywhere—executing search-and-rescue missions, tracking cattle rustlers, or monitoring wildfires with minimal cost and little risk of loss of life.
The Federal Aviation Administration listed 345 active drone licenses as of November 2012. Congress has directed the federal department to streamline the approval process. Starting in 2015, commercial entities—think entertainment news outlet TMZ—will have easy access to drone permits.
Analysts believe as many as 30,000 drones will populate American skies by 2020.
Canyon County, Idaho, already has one, a camera-equipped Draganflyer X-6 it bought for $33.400 with federal grant money. About a year ago, Mesa County, Colorado, used $14,000 to purchase its drone, a 4-foot-long, 9-pound plane that can maintain flight for about an hour. The Seattle Police Department spent $41,000 in August for its Draganflyer X-6.
With the booming interest in the myriad uses of UAVs comes nervous anxiety about the creep of the surveillance state.
And that’s where state lawmakers and their allies come in.
The Drone War Begins
Early Tuesday, members of Montana’s Senate Judiciary Committee assembled in the Capitol in Helena to hear testimony on Senate Bill 150, a measure that would place tight restrictions on UAVs in the Treasure State. If passed, the law would prevent officials from using evidence obtained via drones and would block the state or local governments from owning weaponized UAVs. The law would allow victims of drone overreach to sue offending parties personally and professionally.
“The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions and abusive use of these tools in way that could eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities,” the bill’s author, Sen. Robyn Driscoll, a Democrat from Billings, testified.