Drones, those unmanned aerial vehicles used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are being expedited for domestic deployment, opening up a frontier of speculation about privacy, the legality of invasive imagery and the militarization of police. Today, Georgia congressman Austin Scott writes about his proposed legislation to restrict drones. We also offer varied opinions about the promise and peril of government and private drones patrolling our borders and, perhaps, your backyard.
By Austin Scott
For the past few years, unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones” as they are often called, have become a common tool used by our military overseas. Drone technology has been an invaluable resource to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We’ve also used drone surveillance along our southern border to prevent illegal immigration and combat drug trafficking.
Drones are an attractive tool for the military because of their cost-effectiveness and operator safety, among other things. Because of these benefits, drones also are being more widely considered by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for domestic use in the United States.
Naturally, this development has stirred debate among many Americans.
The alarm over domestic drone use does not reflect an anti-drone sentiment; rather, it stems from questions about the consequences these relatively quiet unmanned aircraft — some of which are as small as a hummingbird — will have on Americans’ privacy. Therefore, drones could present a risk to the protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” outlined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
While highly effective and certainly an attractive alternative to risking American lives, drone technology presents a greater risk of being used in a much more intrusive manner than other aerial surveillance technology.
Drones are capable of staying aloft for days at a time and can be equipped with highly sophisticated camera technology that can collect a constant stream of surveillance footage. With advances in drone technology and without a requirement that federal agencies obtain a warrant, drones could conduct surveillance for days without just cause.
To ensure that drones are not used to violate Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, I recently introduced HR 5925, Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act. This bill would require the government to obtain a warrant before conducting drone surveillance in the United States.
Recognizing that there are situations where the use of drones is necessary and appropriate, such as search and rescue, my bill aims to balance privacy concerns and the ability to harness drone technology for legitimate domestic use.
Drones have proved highly effective in emergency situations requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life — such as wildfires. For these reasons, my bill has emergency exceptions and also would permit the federal government to use drones to patrol the national borders or when they are needed to prevent a terrorist attack.
Beyond these public safety exceptions, the legislation would require law enforcement to acquire a warrant from a judge. This follows the spirit of current laws regarding surveillance.
This technology is evolving rapidly and will soon reach previously unforeseen capabilities. Therefore, we must be proactive and ensure that our laws address these new technologies and maintain the safeguards enshrined in our Constitution.
Without the ability to foresee where drone technology could lead, it is important that we protect Americans’ civil liberties from the outset. This legislation may not be the last word on the issue, but it is an important start in this effort to ensure that drones are not used to infringe on Americans’ privacy rights.
Austin Scott represents Georgia’s 8th Congressional District.