The Bipartisan Opposition to Domestic Drones

Republicans and Democrats join forces to curtail the use of unmanned aerial vehicles within U.S. borders.


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.

While conceding that privacy rights are critical, the bill's opponents say it would unnecessarily limit law enforcement.
"That's technology that I don't think should be absolutely banned," said Larry Epstein, a lobbyist for the Montana Police Protective Association, the Montana County Attorneys Association, and the Montana Association of Police Chiefs, three powerful interest groups ardently opposed to Driscoll's bill.

Epstein said he worries that a provision the allowing victims of drone misuse to sue offenders personally and professionally is overly broad.

His solution, he said, is the Montana Constitution, which boasts strong language protecting privacy rights and already limits police overreach.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, also the head of the Montana Association of Police Chiefs, said Montana legislators are acting too swiftly on drones.

"At this point, it's sort of putting the cart before the horse," Muir warned, pointing out that no local law enforcement agencies in Montana own or deploy drones.

Muir, too, recognizes the concerns shown by privacy advocates.

"We understand the privacy issue at play with this technology and we are open to discussion on how it might be used," he said.

Driscoll's bill likely edges out others as the most forceful of the anti-drone legislation hitting state legislatures this year. Others, like Florida Republican State Sen. Joe Negron's proposal, reveal similar values, but boast more exemptions.

Negron's bill, initially approval by the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week, would prevent law enforcement agencies from using drones to collect evidence without first obtaining a warrant from a judge. Law enforcement agencies also could use drones to counter imminent terrorist attacks or prevent harm from coming to life or property under "particular circumstance."

"Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn't be hovering in the sky, monitoring Floridians," Negron said, according to Florida's WUFT.  "That's not something we believe is an appropriate role for government."

Negron did not return a call for comment.

United in Opposition—Sort Of

"We believe we need a system of rules so people can use drone for legitimate purposes," said Allie Bohm, a policy strategist in the ACLU New York office.

ACLU representatives have spoken in favor of anti-drone legislation in Montana, Florida, and Missouri, urging state lawmakers to stay one step ahead of a potentially dangerous industry.

Bohm said there's no coordinated game plan on the ACLU's part to push anti-drone bills, but the organization stands at the ready to aid anyone's effort to push the legislation.

"There's been a lot of energy by lawmakers," Bohm stressed.

Passage of these laws might come down to differing language of the Driscoll and Negron bills. Bohm and the ACLU, along with Epstein, agree that law enforcement officials should obtain judge-approved search warrants before deploying drones for criminal investigations, as allowed in Negron's bill.

"That's how the world of law enforcement works," Epstein said. "We understand that."

Bohm echoed that thought.

"I think we're putting safeguards in place, but we're not taking away anything law enforcement already has," she said.

"Requiring a warrant is incredibly stupid," barked Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. "It won't work."

Drones buzzing quietly overhead, Whitehead warned, will collect loads of information, including license plate numbers, wi-fi data and secret passwords. Equipped with right components, they'll peak through walls, which he believes bypasses the need for warrants.

Whitehead spent the past two years researching drones, their past, present and, most importantly,their  future. During his study, he authored model legislation that he sent to the 50 state legislatures. He said he's very serious about restraining the surveillance state, though he knows it cannot be fully barred.

"There will be drones everywhere," he said. "There's too much money to be made."

Analysts project the drone industry, now worth $5.9 billion annually, will more than double to $11.3 billion by 2020. Whitehead envisions domestic drones equipped with everything from high-power cameras with facial recognition technology to rubber bullets and sound cannons to break up political rallies or assemblies.

Whitehead quickly dismissed the idea that states can limit drone use, other than bar from court evidence gathered by the aerial vehicles. While other parties in this nationwide debate about the proper role of drones in civil society seek compromise, Whitehead will not. He won't surrender ground on the warrant issue.

"Warrants are incredibly easy to get," he scoffed. "The judges go along with the police."

The only viable path to limiting drones in America, Whitehead said, is to keep their findings out of court.

A Hopeful Industry

As governments across the land embrace Big Brother and the perpetual surveillance state, aviation-related businesses prepare for a profitable era, but also the challenges inherent to bringing such a potentially dangerous product to market.

The industry, nearly in lockstep with those advocating against the drone regulation proposals, stands unified under a central banner—the glorious benefits they believe the unmanned aircrafts will bring to the human experience.

Kevin Lauscher, a police and industrial sales specialist for Draganfly Innovations, counseled lawmakers considering bans to act in the best interest of life-saving efforts.

"We hope that in the discussions that should be held prior to the passing of any bill, they will look at all aspects of use of unmanned systems and the benefits that are provided," Lauscher wrote in an email to Watchdog.org earlier this week. "Hopefully the decisions made in those states will not result in peoples' lives being lost or put at unnecessary risk due to the lack of access to this very beneficial technology."

Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group dedicated to promoting drones worldwide, warned, like Lauscher, that hasty action by state lawmakers could prove extremely dangerous.

"Unfortunately, we have already seen some state legislative efforts, which could unnecessarily prevent the use of unmanned aircraft in search and rescue missions, crime scene investigations and other efforts to protect law enforcement officers on the job, and the public at large," Hinton wrote, striking a conciliatory tone.

"There is no reason we cannot advance the remarkable benefits of unmanned aircraft technology, while also protecting the rights of individual Americans."

Epstein applauded all efforts to define the uses and restriction on drones, a debate he said America must have.
"There ought to be someone questioning the use of drones," he said.

This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org.

NEXT: Psychologist: FBI Manipulated Teen Into Terror Plot

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn’t be hovering in the sky, monitoring Floridians,” Negron said, according to Florida’s WUFT. “That’s not something we believe is an appropriate role for government.”

    Infinite Facepalm for you, Senator dumbass

      1. The people beyond the Great Water have the same rights as the ones who fell out of their mother/sisters in Florida.

        This guy is saying it’s okay to spy on, harrass, and kill people with murderbots, but only if they’re not in his district.

        1. The people we are at war with have forfeited their rights. It is not only okay but morally mandatory for the uSG to spy on, harrass, and kill people as necessary with (chuckles) ‘murderbots’ to protect the rights of Americans.

          1. So people have forfeited their rights just by making the mistake of not being born in the US? Tough break.

            1. I don’t see many Belgians or Botswanans having their rights violated by the US government.

              Disregarding whether we should *be* at war in Afghanistan/Pakistan in the first place… unless you disagree with the whole concept of the state and of war as legitimate (even defensive war), then you’re going to have to concede that, yes, members of belligerent states are not going to have their rights respected in the same way that they would be in peacetime.

              Even a Ron Paul-style defensive war would entail bombings, shooting of suspected enemy combatants, restrictions on the freedom to travel held by citizens in the belligerent nation, etc. as a course of wartime operations.

              1. Well his point is that the people the US is at war with have forfeited their rights (as though that were a thing you could do). But the closest thing we have to a declaration of war is the AUMF, which, if I’m not mistaken, mentions al Qaeda by name. It doesn’t say anything about wedding guests, border guards, or other people who get blown up as a matter of course in this filthy business.

                1. Well, I agree that this particular war has a poor casus belli and is weakly defined — but I do think that certain people (NOT a broad category like “Muslims” or “Afghans”) implicitly forfeit at least some of their ability to exercise their rights through actions which deprive others of rights. A murderer, for example, should not be allowed to exercise his freedom of movement during his stay in prison in the same way as a regular citizen.

                  1. Whoah…an intelligent response…I’ll be damned. Not sure what to do.

                    entions al Qaeda by name. It doesn’t say anything about wedding guests, border guards, or other people who get blown up as a matter of course in this filthy business.

                    Welcome to war.

            2. Yup, that’s right. Damn durty fureners, why, they ain’t even human like Cytoxic is!

          2. Those with whom we’re at war and, evidently, anyone within fifty meters.

            1. Shouldn’t have been standing there.

              1. Well if they weren’t our enemies they would still be alive…

              2. Shouldn’t have been standing there

                Damn straight! Just like folks should know in advance that if the cops are going to the wrong house, and it’s their turn for the visit, they shouldn’t have dogs!

                1. Unleash your inner Toney Hype. Go all out.

                  1. Unleash your inner war monger, Cyto… oh wait, you always do that, never mind…

                    1. I never do that. I only want to end war. I am the only true advocate of peace on this page aside from a few others such as John.

                    2. Cyto, Armed ISR or unarmed ISR are about the most useless pieces of government equipment we use in war. The inability of the controller to distinguish a bush from a person (which happened to me, the JTAC/FAC, almost every day) is rediculous.

                      Afghanistan is full of accidental guerillas. When my unit first took the city of Marjeh in Helmand province the locals thought we were Russian. When I told him we were American he said that couldn’t be the case because Americans were black in complextion…doesn’t sound like these people forfeited their rights to me.

          3. This is so stupid it’s not even wrong (thank you, Wolfgang Pauli). I am sick to death of people saying our military is protecting our rights. Our rights aren’t under assault from jihadists, they’re under assault from our own government. Our violently imperial foreign policy has exactly ZERO to do with ”protecting” anything. And you bring morality into your noxious formula, too? Dang, man (or whatever you are), you are freakin’ scary.

    1. upto I saw the bank draft which had said $5287, I didnt believe …that…my cousin woz like they say truly erning money in there spare time from their laptop.. there friends cousin had bean doing this 4 less than twenty one months and by now paid the mortgage on there condo and purchased a top of the range Acura. read more at, http://www.Ace60.com

  2. Dustin Hurst on the Momentary, Ostentatious, Bipartisan Opposition to Domestic Drones Which Will End Once They Are All Made to Fall in Line

    There. FTFY.

  3. This technology is being deployed for our own benefit. And for the benefit of teh childrunz.

  4. More opposition probably just means more targets to practice on

    1. Maybe we could buy some North Korean childinz, to practice our drone strikes on. Their parents were probably just gonna eat em anyway, so we can consider it mercy. It’s a win/win for Murika!

      1. Or even better, the emperor could use em for his skeet shooting practice.

        1. Count de Monet: It is said that the people are revolting.

          King Louis XVI: You said it! They stink on ice!

        2. I still have to see some evidence before believing that His Royal Highness the Emperor actually shoots, or has ever shot, skeet.

  5. The people we are at war with have forfeited their rights.

    Your hatred will consume you, and leave a dessicated husk.

    Blow away.

  6. so who knows what time it is over there?


  7. For a moment’s (too quick a read’s) notice I was under the impression that Kirsten Dunst was on record opposing Drones.


  8. ACLU members, and libertarians has joined forces to curtail the use domestic drones before it permanently undermines constitutional liberty.

    That genie’s kind of already out of the bottle.

    Maybe what they mean, is before we go from apeshit to full retard?

    1. Shouldn’t that read: “…have joined forces…

  9. I recall reading, years ago, a science fiction story about an Earth-like planet that had a weird temporal anomaly that reflected any matter that entered it. In the equivalent Paleolithic period a Stone Age inhabitant threw a rock over the horizon. To his surprise, the rock came flying back at him. Enraged, he began flinging rocks continuously, only to have an equal number of rocks flying back. He gathered his tribe to help him fling rocks at the enemy over the hill and each rock was returned in kind. The story then switched to an equivalent time to the present where the entire society was based upon a war with the unseen enemy over the hill who would continue to return fire despite ever-increasing levels delivered at it.

    I see this as an example of the current foreign policy of the US.

    “We’re dropping bombs on civilians and they hate us? Don’t they know we’re killing children for their benefit? What the hell is wrong with these people?”

    I see the US as a sixth-grade bully on the elementary school playground. When someone comes up to hit him in the shin he starts kicking the shit out of every little kid in reach.

    I hate sixth-grade bullies.

    … Hobbit

    1. I love the ideal that, if we just leave other people alone, they will leave us alone. Unfortunately, anyone who studies history, knows that the world just does not work that way – that world of peace is pure fantasy.
      Unfortunately, also, politicians are idiots, and, while leaving other countries completely alone is completely foolish, they go way too far in the other direction and involve us in other countries’ business for years on end.
      Is it too much to ask to have a government that does what is necessary and no more?

  10. But if urr against bombing da terrists den your not patriotik!

  11. The Police State is here to stay. Democide is now soon to follow.

  12. Am I the only one that feels dirty for actually agreeing with our politicians?

  13. Tell ya what- I haven’t owned a gun in over a decade, but the second I start seeing aircraft, manned or not, circling around spying on me, I’m going to go shopping…

  14. I own a drone. I put it together myself with off-the-shelf parts. It cost $1,000 and is competitive with the $40,000 UAVs.

    It’s like a gun. It is the intentions of the person behind it and not the technology itself. Such a shame uninformed people are immediately rushing to regulate it.

  15. ”Analysts project the drone industry, now worth $5.9 billion annually, will more than double to $11.3 billion by 2020.”

    5.9 x 2 = 11.8

  16. have launched an all-out offensive against the unm

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.