Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul last week filibustered the confirmation of John Brennan for Central Intelligence Agency director over the fine points of drone use on American citizens.
He stood before the Senate for 13 hours to protest the fact that the government said it could under “extraordinary circumstances” strike an American citizen labeled an enemy combatant on U.S. soil. Many ridiculed him for arguing about something that will never happen.
Maybe it won’t. But in highlighting what is likely an obscure event and getting a ton of media coverage in the process, Rand, a Republican, launched what I hope is the opening salvo of a much bigger debate about the loss of civil liberties in the country.
The issue of drones, in particular, is a great place to start the discussion. Once used primarily to assist U.S. troops overseas in killing enemy fighters and to patrol the U.S. border, they are now being used to surveil U.S. citizens throughout the country. In one of the first public instances of the federal government lending drones to local law enforcement agencies, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) let the Grand Forks, N.D., police and the sheriff’s office borrow a multimillion-dollar Predator in 2011 to monitor a farmer accused of not returning cows worth $6,000 to a neighbor. If something so financially trivial prompts government into using drones, what does it say about the ubiquity of their future use?
Today, DHS is not only lending drones to local agencies but distributing grants to them so that they can buy their own without an official policy in place to guide how and when they can be used. Congress, however, has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change airspace rules to make it easier for local police and other organizations to use them. The Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act request discovered that 358 public institutions, including 14 universities and colleges, have permits to fly them. This means that machines that can film people not accused of a crime and store the information indefinitely could soon be hovering over your home and neighborhood because the owners and/or the operators feel like it.
According to a recent report by NBC News, the FAA estimates that about 10,000 commercial drones will be flying in the U.S. by about 2020, fueling many schools to start offering training for unmanned aircraft. Who could be against jobs, right?
Before all these programs start, taxpayer dollars are spent and gazillions of images stored, shouldn’t the public and its representatives thoroughly debate the parameters of how the machines can be used? It took a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court last year to tell law enforcement they needed a warrant to track people via GPS, so it’s clear once technology is available, government officials and others will use it regardless of the ethics and constitutionality of it. I don’t know if Americans are yet prepared to become residents of London, where cameras blanket the city, and I don’t think current law adequately protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure linked to information gathered from unmanned aircraft.
It is also scary to think of how drones dehumanize people. Information generated by them transforms individuals into data points to be analyzed by big government or big business in the same way that they do to enemy combatants. Using a weaponized video game to protect U.S. citizens is one thing, but to turn them loose on Americans, even for civilian reasons, should not be a natural progression.
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been told it’s necessary to sacrifice civil liberties for safety. But the vast majority of new government powers have been used not to monitor terrorists, but for traditional law enforcement. Just because technology exists does not mean it should be used. Without people like Sen. Paul questioning government, however, cradle to grave surveillance will become as American as obesity and bankrupt entitlement programs.