THE BLOG

Get Ready for the Invasion of the 'Civilian-Owned Drone"'

10/11/2013 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... your right to privacy flying away.

By now, damn near everyone has heard about these "drones." So what are they? Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that are touted for both law enforcement and civilian use, and many states are vying for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contracts to allow drone testing. And that fact raises another question: What's the need to use these drones?

Farmers, for example, may use UAVs to monitor their crops, and law enforcement agents may use them for a similar purpose -- scouting for marijuana. Drones also have use in situations which would put an FBI agent's life at risk and can provide stealthy surveillance in hostage situations.

Case in point: Earlier this year, the FBI used a drone to monitor the Alabama bunker where 65-year-old Jimmy Dykes held a 5-year-old boy captive after storming a school bus, shooting the driver, and kidnapping the boy.

Certainly, there are situations in which unmanned surveillance can be extremely useful. However, several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), note that the federally funded drone programs have been pushed through with no regard for citizen privacy and with no safeguards in place to protect our rights.

Still, in light of recent news of NSA surveillance of phone records, email, and electronic communications, it seems that expecting privacy -- our constitutional right -- may seem a bit too much to ask for in this current climate.

Let's go back to June, at a Senate Judiciary Committee FBI oversight hearing, when former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III admitted that the FBI had been using drones in law enforcement operations and domestic surveillance since 2006, and that they had spent more than $3 million doing so. Mueller addressed privacy concerns by saying that the agency was in the initial stages of writing privacy policy to ensure that the drones are used in a manner that does not violate constitutional privacy rights.

Yep, you read that correctly. The "initial stages" -- some seven years after the FBI began using drones for domestic surveillance. Let's call that seven years of bad luck for privacy rights.

Congressmen across the nation are encouraging their home states to draft privacy laws regarding drone use. In Oklahoma, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, has joined forces with the ACLU to introduce House Bill 1556, which is intended to set limits and guidelines for the use of drones in his state. While the measure passed House Committee last year, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin urged Wesselhoft to hold the bill, citing concerns over whether the measure would impact the state's application for UAV testing and development funding.

Call me crazy, but it seems as if having privacy measures in place before testing would be a significant step toward protecting the rights of citizens.

But I guess if it's good for the goose, then it's good for the gander. Get ready for the invasion of the "civilian-owned drone"... likely with little oversight if the past presumes the present.

Just look to the rhetoric of some of the proponents of the UAV programs and their ideas of valid and appropriate uses for drones. In "Drone Home," an article published by Lev Grossman for Time magazine, the author calls drones "one of a handful of genuinely transformative technologies to emerge in the past 10 years." He talks of their use for law enforcement and civilians: "Farmers will use them to watch their fields. Builders will use them to survey construction sites. Hollywood will use them to make movies. Hobbyists will use them just because they feel like it."

Just because they feel like it? It seems somewhat sinister that any private citizen could use an unmanned aerial vehicle for no legitimate purpose. We already have the government spying on us. Do we need our neighbors stalking us as well?

And speaking of sinister, the United States Navy Program Executive Office, Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons (PEO-U&W) uses the Grim Reaper as the logo for its drone program.

Through the United States Department of Justice, the federal government has provided $1.2 million to municipal police departments after President Barack Obama ordered the FAA to "fast-track" requests for drone use. However, the department failed to monitor how drone grants were spent, and according to a report by federal watchdog group EPIC, auditors with the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that none of the drones purchased with grant funds were used in police actions.

Actually, drones that were purchased to monitor life-threatening situations, to conduct surveillance of methamphetamine production, or to survey high-risk gang areas have been sitting idle, unneeded for any law enforcement action. In one case, a drone purchased to the tune of $150,000 in federal grant money crashed during its first attempted mission for drug surveillance and has been parked ever since.

It seems that fast-tracking the drone program has thus far garnered two major results: violating privacy through unchecked domestic surveillance (both civilian and governmental) and siphoning money from the Justice Department coffers.