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.