WASHINGTON—When President Barack Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill Feb. 14, it included provisions to facilitate the commercial and civil use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—commonly called drones—and integrate them into national airspace. The bill called for expedited access to the use of UAVs by first responders like law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency responders, according to the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle News.
Drones are well known for their use in military surveillance and targeting, receiving publicity for successes in the war in Afghanistan and the killing of Taliban commanders.
According to the FAA, “Interest is growing in civil uses, including commercial photography, aerial mapping, crop monitoring, advertising, communications, and broadcasting. Unmanned aircraft systems may increase efficiency, save money, enhance safety, and even save lives.”
Current FAA rules restrict flights of UAVs to no higher than 400 feet, and away from airports and air traffic. The drones are treated by the FAA as experimental, to conduct research and pilot training, but not for use commercially. This situation should change rapidly, as the reauthorization bill instructs the FAA to come up with a comprehensive integration plan within nine months.
As drones could potentially become familiar objects in our domestic skies, questions over safety, privacy, and national security have arisen.
For example, in our crowded skies, what assurances will there be to avoid collisions? Should it be legal for a drone to hover over someone’s backyard for days or even months recording all social interactions, and then feed the information to the Web? What will prevent terrorists from weaponizing drones and targeting a government building or military installation?
To take a closer look at these questions, the Brookings Institution convened a panel of experts of diverse backgrounds April 4, to discuss the potential for harm and good in the use of drones.
Consider the safety issue. “If the communication link between the pilot and aircraft fails, then there are obviously challenges involved in bringing the aircraft back to the ground without endangering other aircraft or people on the ground,” said John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), next discussed privacy. He said that when a UAV isn’t visible to its operator, it’s called non-line of sight operation. “Non-line of sight operation would make it possible for someone to fly a drone into a fenced-in yard, lower it down to hover directly outside a window facing into the yard, and take pictures of the interior of the house,” he said.
While this maneuver would be in violation of various aviation rules, “If there are tens of thousands of unmanned aviation systems out there and tens or thousands of people flying them, it will happen” he said.
Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting PLLC, which specializes in cybersecurity policy and law, talked about the government’s principal domestic use of drones: border patrol, homeland security, and law enforcement. He said the U.S. Southwest border is “a 1,500-milelong desert punctuated in a few places by large cosmopolitan population, the crossing points. But in between there’s nothing.”
Rosenzweig, who served as the deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, said it is impossible to patrol the 1,500-mile border with uniformity. Fences are expensive to erect and relatively easy to evade. Hence the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is eager to get UAVs that provide greater visibility. “Instead of having border patrol at every 30 feet along the border, you can have people in cars who can respond when an intrusion is observed,” he said.
Catherine Crump from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned of drones’ potential for harm:
“Unlike a traditional aircraft or helicopter, which can be easily detected, drones … could potentially engage in surveillance without being detected by the people who are potentially targets. I think those changes combined with the rapid development of cameras and our ability to analyze video in a way that hasn’t previously been possible makes these potentially very powerful surveillance tools.”
Crump highlighted the misuse of government surveillance in the recent Supreme Court decision United States v. Jones, where the police had installed a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s automobile and then tracked his movements for nearly a month. The court was unanimous in regarding this collection of evidence as a “search” and, therefore, a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Crump stressed that the ACLU was not opposed to the domestic use of drones. Indeed, recordings of incidents in dispute can be helpful in defending her clients and hold the government accountable. It is much harder for the government, say, to deny police brutality when there is actual footage. But she found it disconcerting that law enforcement is interested in using drones for crowd control without the presence of police.
Kenneth Anderson, nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, put the whole conversation in a sociological context by saying that our very notion of privacy is evolving. He used the quaint example of his mother who in the 1960s had her telephone ringer switched off and felt guilty that she was being dishonest with her callers.
Anderson spoke of contemporary social media like Facebook and Twitter. “None of these sorts of existing social technologies would exist in the fashion that we have if people actually cared about their privacy in the way that we’ve traditionally thought about,” he said.
Proceed with Caution
The panelists were in agreement that the country is on the threshold of a new technology, and ideas for using the technology versus protecting privacy had not hardened yet. Panelists were hopeful that this time we can find the right balance between using the new technology and protecting people’s privacy.
Crump remarked that because the FAA’s rules were now fairly restrictive in allowing drone use, there was “an opportunity to have a real and engaged public debate about the role this technology should play in the United States,” noting that this situation was a nice change from how issues are usually played out.
Rosenzweig was worried the eagerness the government has for the new technology would lead to mistakes and turn the public against it. “If history is any lesson, if policymakers within government push too rapidly in the use of drone technology for governmental purposes, they will quickly, I think, lose the support of the public and very much run the risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” he concluded.