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US Rights Advocates Turn Drones on Government

  • Jim Randle

FILE - A drone flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City, March 12, 2014.

FILE - A drone flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City, March 12, 2014.

The growing capability of civilian drones worries some U.S. civil liberties advocates, who say these "eyes in the sky" could give the government too much information about ordinary people. But one key expert says these unmanned aerial vehicles are getting so cheap they can turn the tables on government by giving protesters a way to watch the police.

YouTube videos show several instances of camera-equipped drones over flying over demonstrations in Poland, Thailand, Turkey and elsewhere.

Some of the videos show throngs of people, burning barricades, tear gas and large numbers of police.

American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst Jay Stanley said protest groups figured surveillance of police activities made it less likely officers would use excessive force.

"We think that drone surveillance technology should not be used by the government to watch over the people when it doesn’t have reason to suspect you, but we do think it should be able to be used by the people to watch the government," he said.

Stanley said many new technologies threatened privacy, but a government eye in the sky worried Americans even more than other activities that were probably just as intrusive.

“There has been an outpouring of concern over drones, unlike anything I’ve seen as a privacy advocate for 15 years,” he said.

U.S. aviation regulators and many U. S. state legislatures have passed or are considering new laws governing drone use.

Stanley said to protect privacy and liberty; police should be required to have a reason to believe that someone is breaking the law before they start tracking someone’s activities with a drone.

But a veteran private investigator Philip Becnel says current U.S. laws that govern surveillance from conventional planes or helicopters are adequate and are likely to cover drone operations.

He said that meant it would be legal for police to use a drone to spot an illegal marijuana farm from the air, but would not be legal to peer into someone’s bedroom window.

Becnel said cheap civilian drones were noisy and can’t stay airborne very long, while effective drones cost too much for most private eyes.

“To get a drone that you could really do surveillance with you are looking at spending three or four grand ($3,000-$4,000) at least, so that’s cost-prohibitive [too expensive] for most private investigators right now,“ said Becnel.

That’s changing as drones get smaller, gain endurance, and are equipped with better sensors.

That’s why drones are getting many news jobs, like delivering packages, and also why they could become more persistent and more intrusive.

A researcher at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London says there are good reasons to worry about privacy.

But in a Skype interview, Professor Keith Hayward said drones also offered unique contributions.

“I think they [the problems] are manageable, and the balance, I think the benefits and advantages that might accrue to the agricultural sector, to resource management, to environmental management, is something that we are just going to have to balance as a society," he said.

For example, drones have been used for years to sow seeds or spray chemicals in fields, and monitor and inspect other agricultural and industrial activities far more cheaply and safely than manned aircraft.