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Congress warned drones would 'chill' Americans' rights

A congressional panel has been told by a privacy organization that using drones for broad, untargeted surveillance would “chill” the speech and expression rights of Americans, and the logical way to protect those rights is to require search warrants for the eyes in the sky.

The testimony comes from Amie Stepanovich, association litigation counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

She delivered the testimony to a field forum on the impact of domestic use of drones on privacy and the constitutional rights of Americans that was set up by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, for the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

The hearing was held recently at Rice University in Houston.

Stepanovich explained that the proposed H.R. 6100, the Preserving American Privacy Act of 2012, is a good start, but more needs to be done.

A drone, for example, can be equipped with gigapixel cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, GPS, movement detectors and automated license plate readers, the group said. Also, “drones are currently being developed that will carry facial recognition technology, able to remotely identify individuals in parks, schools, and at political gatherings.”

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While some types of that technology already is available, Stepanovich said, “Drones present a unique threat to privacy” for their ability to conduct undetected surveillance just about anywhere for “weeks and months.”

While 60 public entities across the nation, from cities and states to schools and universities, already have permission to operate drones, now law enforcement agencies are expressing interest, she said, and they “have also voiced interest in outfitting drones with both lethal and non-lethal weapons.”

“In order to prevent abuses associated with the use of this technology, a strict warrant requirement needs to be implemented for all drone surveillance, including both felony and non-felony crimes. Requiring a warrant would safeguard privacy without preventing the use of drones in emergency situations,” she said.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet issued a statement on the use of drone surveillance, as the technology is developed, “the threat to privacy will become even more substantial.”

“High-rise apartments, security fences and even the walls of a building are not barriers to increasingly common drone technology. Without the protection of a warrant requirement, individuals in the United States will find that the intimate details of their daily lives are freely available to the roving eyes of the government.”

In her testimony to Congress, Stepanovich said a warrant should be required to safeguard privacy while still allowing the use of drones for emergencies, developing criminal cases and the like.

“The courts have carefully developed and cultivated the warrant requirement over time. This process has crafted a set of exceptions to ensure that warrants do not hinder effective law enforcement.”

But the community needs to be protected from the general, broad surveillance capabilities that exist.

The invasiveness of drone technology, Stepanovich said, increases privacy risks to individuals as they pursue their daily activities.

“Broad, untargeted drone surveillance would have a chilling effect on the speech and expression rights of individuals in the United States,” she asserted.

A drone, with the capability of staying aloft for hours or days at a time, could monitor a person’s daily life as they go from home to work to school to the store and back, she pointed out.

“Even if law enforcement is not able to discern exactly what a persons says or buys at a particular location, simply tracking an individual’s public movements in a systematic fashion for extended periods of time can create a vivid description of their private life,” she said.

The EPIC statement noted the Supreme Court has ruled a similar technology, GPS tracking without a warrant, is not allowed.

While EPIC already has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to develop rules for drone operators, the agency has not responded.

“The FAA’s failure to act means that there is no framework in place that ensures that civilian operators and federal agencies … use drone technology in a privacy-protective manner.”

In February, EPIC was joined by more than 100 organizations and experts to ask the FAA for help.

Joining Poe at the hearing were Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas; Hank Johnson, D-Ga.; and Sandy Adams, R-Fla.