Dozens of organizations concerned about a cataclysmic loss of privacy for Americans are petitioning the federal government to address that issue as thousands – maybe even tens of thousands – of drones are expected to be put into the air over the U.S. in coming years.
“Drones greatly increase the capacity for domestic surveillance. Gigapixel cameras used to outfit drones are among the highest definition cameras available, and can ‘provide real-time video streams at a rate of 10 frames a second.’ On some drones, operators can track up to 65 different targets across a distance of 65 square miles. Drones may also carry infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS, sensors that detect movement, and automated license plate readers,” warns the letter sent to Michael Huerta, the acting administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
That organization has been assigned by Congress to develop rules over dispatching drones over the heads of consumers all across America.
The letter was signed by officials with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the World Privacy Forum, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Patient Privacy Rights, Liberty Coalition, Government Accountability Project, Demand Progress, Cyber Privacy Project, Center for National Security Studies, Bill of Rights Defense Committee and dozens of other groups and individuals.
“The increased use of drones poses an ongoing threat to every person residing within the United States,” the letter said. “Companies are developing ‘paparazzi drones’ in order to follow and photograph celebrities. Private detectives are starting to use drones to track their targets Google, Inc., has deployed street-level drones in other countries to supplement the images of Street View. Criminals and others may use drones for purposes of stalking and harassment.”
EPIC said the petition is urging the FAA to address the privacy threats associated with the use of the drones. It was Congress that recently passed legislation requiring the FAA to assess the safety of drones used by commercial and government operators.
The petition asserts, “The privacy threat posed by the deployment of drone aircraft in the United States is great. The public should be given the opportunity to comment on this development.”
The organizations noted that current rules allow only civil organizations to operate drones, and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection already has nine flying.
But in 2011, the agency “allowed a local law enforcement unit in North Dakota the use of a drone within the unit’s normal operations. This incident represented the first occasion where drone use resulted in an arrest of a U.S. citizen.”
Now the Miami-Dade Police Department has purchased a Honeywell T-hawk drone, the Montgomery County sheriff’s office in Texas bought a ShadowHawk, and drones also are in use by police in South Carolina and Colorado.
“Experts estimate that up to 30,000 new drones could be launched in the United States in the next decade,” it warns.
That means a huge expansion in the ability for monitoring people, watching their every move, and recording all their actions.
“Drones are designed to undertake constant, persistent surveillance to a degree that former methods of aerial surveillance were unable to achieve,” the petition said. “With special capabilities and enhanced equipment, drones are able to conduct far more detailed surveillance, obtaining high-resolution pictures and video, peering inside high-level windows, and through solid barriers, such as fences, trees, and even walls.”
The petition calls for a notice and comment period on the new invasion of privacy.
EPIC reported the drones can fly high enough that people are not able to see them, so that surveillance is done without the knowledge of the target.
While the U.S. Supreme Court says individuals generally do not have a Fourth Amendment right regarding aerial surveillance, the technology is causing some to rethink the standards.
“In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo v. U.S. that the use of a device that is not in ‘general public use’ is a search even if it does not physically invade the home. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Jones that the attachment of a GPS device to a car with the intent of gathering information was a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment.”