The Buzz From Above
The drones are coming to a neighborhood near you.
As the New York Times editorial says, it's no longer a matter of if, but when.
Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly select six domestic sites to test the safety of drones, which can vary in size from remote-controlled planes as big as jetliners to camera-toting hoverers called Nano Hummingbirds that weigh 19 grams.
The drone go-ahead, signed in February by President Obama in the F.A.A. reauthorization law, envisions a $5 billion-plus industry of camera drones being used for all sorts of purposes from real estate advertising to crop dusting to environmental monitoring and police work.
There are many excellent uses for drones, ranging from search and rescue to providing a capability of an eye in the sky over large stretches of border. But then, there are uses that are less savory, from law enforcement surveillance to killing.
As is invariably the case, the argument in favor of drones, at least domestically, elevates its good uses over the ones people would find unacceptable, with the government promising the latter won't happen because it will make rules, maybe even pass laws, that forbid uses that we might find unpalatable at the dawn of the drone age. Those inclined to believe will sigh in relief.
One of my inspirational muses, Radley Balko has spent the last year writing a book on the militarization of American law enforcement, which will be available next summer. called Rise of the Warrior Cop. Though I haven't read it, I surmise based on Radley's writings that a core message is that if we put the accoutrements of war in the hands of the police, they will use them. We can explain the need for tanks and heavy armaments by pointing at the ability to thwart a terrorist takeover of Des Moines, but once they have custom fitted SWAT gear, it will be used at the slightest provocation. Or photo ops.
There will no doubt be times when a drone will appear to be the best choice to deal with a situation which, from the perspective of law enforcement to fulfill a mission unhampered by legal niceties and concern for collateral damage. No commanding officer will say "let the victim die because there are regulations that say we are not allowed to use a drone for this purpose." And when the victim is saved, America will applaud.
And the next time, there will be no victim, but a man the cops believe is very bad, and the drone will protect police from any potential harm in getting this very bad man. After its successful use, and the press conference where the chief tearfully announces that no police officer died in the apprehension of this very bad man, America will applaud.
And drones will become a part of our life, just as SWAT teams have become a part of our life. Except they were once only called upon for the most extreme and dangerous of situations, and now they show up to break down door when someone is thought to be smoking pot inside.
The New York Times anticipates the slippery slope, and offers its solution:
Responding to growing concern as the public discovers drones are on the horizon, the agency recently and quite sensibly added the issue of citizens’ privacy to its agenda. Setting regulations under the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unlawful search is of the utmost importance. But since the F.A.A.’s primary mission is safety, Congress should take the matter in hand by writing privacy safeguards for the booming drone industry.
Certainly agency regulation is inadequate to ensure that interests contrary to the convenience of the government are honored. Regulations change all the time. Regulations are ignored, giving rise to a commission and investigation that, years later, admonish the offending entity and direct it to never violate the regulations again.
But is Congress a better answer? After Senator Patrick Leahy scuttled the warrant requirement for online communications when law enforcement whined that it would force them to work harder, the message is clear. Congress can no more be trusted with assuring the preservation of our rights than the FAA. Or your local police. Our last line of defense would be the Supreme Court's refusal to frame a drone exception, but that won't bring comfort to many.
That drones can, and no doubt will, serve extremely useful, socially acceptable purposes is not in doubt. It's that the government, once the technology is in place, won't use it for improper purposes as well. To ask the public to trust them, to believe that they would never use it improperly, is to ask too much.
The government has demonstrated at every turn that it cannot control the impulse to use any tool available for purposes beyond the approved scope. And Americans, with short memories and emotionally charged willingness to overlook the government's trespasses, will applaud.
The idea of watchful drones buzzing overhead like Orwellian gnats may seem far-fetched to some. But Congress, in its enthusiasm for a new industry, should guarantee the strongest protection of privacy under what promises to be a galaxy of new eyes in the sky.
It's hardly far-fetched, as the technology is readily available. What is far-fetched is the New York Times' naive hope that the government can restrain itself from abusing this technology as it did the last. The only way to "guarantee the strongest protection of privacy" is to not give government the tools to violate it. Once they have them, they will use them.