Back in October, as I walked through Logan Airport I was entranced by a Parrot AR Quadrocopter drone hovering in front me in the concourse. It was being guided by a gift shop sales clerk using her iPhone. She showed me how it worked and I was particularly startled by the clarity of the video it was recording. I thought it would be great to use to take aerial video of my house, the woods around my cabin, my neighbors' houses …. whoa, I thought to myself. Video of my neighbors' houses, yards, and their activities? Maybe even peek inside their windows? No thanks.
As creepy as neighors drone spying on one another would be, allowing agents of the government do it is much worse.
In today's New York Times, the paper's editors worry about the misuse of domestic drones by police agencies to spy on the public. The editorial notes:
Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly select six domestic sites to test the safety of drones, which can vary in size from remote-controlled planes as big as jetliners to camera-toting hoverers called Nano Hummingbirds that weigh 19 grams.
The drone go-ahead, signed in February by President Obama in the F.A.A. reauthorization law, envisions a $5 billion-plus industry of camera drones being used for all sorts of purposes from real estate advertising to crop dusting to environmental monitoring and police work.
Responding to growing concern as the public discovers drones are on the horizon, the agency recently and quite sensibly added the issue of citizens' privacy to its agenda. Setting regulations under the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unlawful search is of the utmost importance…
The idea of watchful drones buzzing overhead like Orwellian gnats may seem far-fetched to some. But Congress, in its enthusiasm for a new industry, should guarantee the strongest protection of privacy under what promises to be a galaxy of new eyes in the sky.
What might "strongest protection of privacy" look like? The American Civil Liberties Union argues that legislation should include:
USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public's representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.
Go here to view Reason's extensive coverage of the abuse of drones at home and abroad.
Disclosure: I am still a card-carrying member of the ACLU.