WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security has launched a program to "facilitate and accelerate the adoption" of small, unmanned drones by police and other public safety agencies, an effort that an agency official admitted faces "a very big hurdle having to do with privacy."
The $4 million Air-based Technologies Program, which will test and evaluate small, unmanned aircraft systems, is designed to be a "middleman" between drone manufacturers and first-responder agencies "before they jump into the pool," said John Appleby, a manager in the DHS Science and Technology Directorate's division of borders and maritime security.
Appleby provided program details to a friendly audience at the Counter Terror Expo here last week. Just days before, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued new rules to streamline licensing for government agencies seeking to operate lightweight drones.
The DHS program "is meant to aid the user community in making informed decisions" about buying drones, said a DHS spokeswoman. She said the department can help law enforcement agencies "better understand what this technology can contribute in areas such as real-time law enforcement operational support; special event response; crime scene situational awareness; border security; fire/wildfire detection; and disaster evaluation and initial response."
Appleby said he hopes to invite vendors to participate in field tests of sensors and other drone capabilities at a military base somewhere in the Southwest this summer. Later this year, the FAA plans separate tests that will focus on how to safely and efficiently integrate unmanned aircraft into the same airspace with piloted airplanes.
"If DHS is going to serve as a Consumer Reports for local authorities that are interested in buying drones and help them figure out which drones perform well and appropriate for their needs, that's great," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "At the same time, we do know that DHS institutionally has had a role in pushing local governments to increase their surveillance through grants. I would hope they would not use this program to encourage unnecessary surveillance."
Most people likely wouldn't consider the use of unmanned aircraft to find missing children, locate lost hikers or detect forest fires as "unnecessary" surveillance. But given that fewer than 400 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies currently have aviation units, the FAA has chosen a go-slow approach with a focus on safety. Initially, law enforcement agencies will be just licensed for training and performance evaluation. Only when a department has shown that it is proficient will it be granted an operational license.
Patrick Egan, a Sacramento, Calif., consultant who heads the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group, said the DHS program has merit. "Somebody needs to do it," he said. "There's too much room for problems. If they don’t educate police departments, there will be a backlash to this technology."
Indeed, an ACLU report released this past December said, "Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values." It warned of a coming "'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities."
A preview of that came in 2007 when Houston police not so secretly tested an unmanned aircraft that the department hoped to use, among other functions, in issuing speeding tickets. More recently, a police SWAT team in Grand Forks, N.D., deployed a borrowed DHS Predator drone to assist in making the first arrest of an American using pilot-less airborne surveillance.
The FAA has already authorized police in a handful of cities -- including Seattle; Arlington, Texas; North Little Rock, Ark.; Gadsden, Ala.; and Ogden, Utah -- to fly drones. But with those numbers set to soar, at least two pundits have suggested an individual who shot down a surveillance drone would become a "hero" to some.
Once "the bottleneck has passed and every police department does indeed have eyes everywhere, our notions of privacy under the Fourth Amendment and reasonable searches … will need to be reevaluated," wrote University of North Dakota aviation law professor Joseph Vacek in a 2010 law review article, "Big Brother Will Soon Be Watching--Or Will He?" "It seems the state will have the power, both constitutionally and technologically, to continually monitor its citizens from above."
The FAA rules allow government agencies to operate drones weighing from a few ounces to 25 pounds, small enough to fit in a backpack or the trunk of a police cruiser. Because most drones cannot detect and avoid other aircraft themselves, for now they must fly no more than 400 feet off the ground and within sight of the operator. Currently, only U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will be operating the big Predators, stationed along the country's southern and northern borders.
Nonetheless, Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group, pointed out that small, unmanned aircraft are "more maneuverable and quieter than" helicopters and piloted aircraft, and are capable of carrying gigapixel cameras, infrared and thermal imaging technology, automated license plate readers and, soon, facial recognition technology. And some drones have cameras able "to track 65 separate targets over a large radius," she said.
While DHS may be "easing the burden" on police departments with its new program, it is "not providing these agencies with best practices to protect privacy and civil liberties, nor is the agency mandating transparency or accountability in the operation of the drones that it funds" through a separate program, Stepanovich said. "This means that those affected by the proliferation of drones in their communities have no method to discover what drones have been licensed in their area, to whom, or how they are being used."
Such criticisms were very much on Appleby's mind when he spoke about the program at the Counter Terror Expo. The DHS official said government must explain the costs and benefits of the new technology in order to win over a skeptical public already annoyed by increasingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras.
"We have a very tall challenge to change public perception. Otherwise, we'll be stopped cold in our tracks if we don't do this thoughtfully," he said. "We have to bring the public along every step of the way" and convince them "we will not be watching backyards."
Yet even as he acknowledged critics, Appleby beamed over a recently tested wide-area surveillance system that would allow federal border agents to see the entire city of Nogales, Ariz., down to the street level. He called such sensors the "kinds of tools that could be game changers" in dealing with violence along the border.
That sort of persistent ongoing surveillance concerns Egan, the industry consultant. He said defense contractors, faced with a shrinking military market, are lobbying hard to provide "counterinsurgency applications" to local police in order to keep sales up. The question remains whether the DHS test program will prove little more than an enabler.
"Police departments are going to make a big mistake. I don't think the American public is ready for what I call the 'Taliban treatment,'" Egan said. "This is still America."