May 2, 2013

By: Kelly Diamond, Editor

As I sit here and shudder over the implications drones would have on my civil liberties, government officials are looking to put “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” in federal air space.

While I find no consolation in the softer term, and don’t dispute the practical applications of drones, I take serious issue with potentially having an “eye in the sky” monitoring our every move.

Don't Drone Me, BroThe split on the drone debate is rather stark: I’m not seeing a whole lot of ambivalence on this matter.  In fact, there are a few states vying to be the “testing zone” for surveillance drones in hopes of later becoming a contender for production factories for them.  THEN there are the stalwart states that want nothing to do with it, sent back the ones they had, and wash their hands of it entirely. 

In terms of JUST surveillance drones – and no, I won’t indulge anyone’s sensibilities by calling it “UAVs” – there are countless, practical applications and uses for them.  They help with agriculture and monitoring large farms.  They are a great tool in map-making, even!  And if a private farmer wants a surveillance drone for his farm, there is no problem with that.  If a private map-making company wants to utilize one, it makes perfect sense.  But instituting a drone program in every local municipality is absurd!  I don’t see surveillance drones as much more than having a security camera, and to that end, the private property owners are well within their rights to want to monitor any activity happening on their grounds.  But that’s not what’s happening here. 

Private companies are not looking for anything other than ensuring the safety and integrity of their property.  If you are doing something that could either harm their property or are attempting to steal something from their property, then THAT is what they care about.  Our government has absolutely NO concerns whatsoever about property rights or protection.  It specifically wants to see what each and every individual is doing, and if they don’t approve, then they swoop in and take action.

Currently, in some cases, when a police officer executes a search warrant, they have to be looking for something in particular and define where they intend to look.  IF they find something else illegal during that search, there is a term known as “eyes cannot trespass”, and that could be enough to get you into their interrogation chambers.  There was a REAL case where a police officer heard a woman scream.  Thinking she was in distress, he announced himself and broke down the door.  Turned out the woman was screaming in ecstasy, not in pain or terror; but there also happened to be a marijuana bud sitting in plain sight.  Both were arrested for possession of a narcotic.

Now… imagine what a drone would do.  Heat sensing drones?  Surveillance drones?  They are cheaper to operate, after all, than helicopters.  If you so much as emit a little extra heat from your residence, you could be getting the “fed knock” at your door suspecting you of growing an illegal plant!  No-knock warrants are very real, and they terrify the people in their homes.  There have been countless mistakes on the part of the police force when determining which house to break into… think how many more will be added to those numbers!

What happens then?  I’ll even give the state the benefit of the doubt and assume they will ONLY use a spy drone with a warrant and advising the parties they wish to monitor.  What if they see someone else who’s NOT on the warrant doing something they don’t like?  By virtue of falling under the scope of a drone (which is quite large if you consider how much can be seen from the sky!) this person gets collared?

So far, 39 states are trying to pass legislation that would dramatically restrict the use of spy drones within their jurisdiction.  Admirable as states like Virginia and Idaho are for making these efforts to nullify, in the end, the air space is federal air space controlled and monitored by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).  And at this point, would it surprise you that the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) was invited to the party, to incentivize local governments with grants to buy these drones?  There are about 38 states also competing to be chosen as a test sight, for the potential jobs that could be created as being a production site for them.  The math seems hinky, but is it really shocking to see a split legislation?  Or to perhaps have a few folks playing both sides of the issue? 

There have been in the past several years, efforts by various states to institute a drone program, and thus far the FAA has been rather reluctant to issue permits quickly or easily.  There have been suggestions that the drones be armed with something like a taser or rubber bullets in some cases.  Proponents of surveillance drones balk at the idea of weaponized ones.  I don’t see how that is so irrational.  In fact, I can’t see it as anything short of inevitable.

All these spying initiatives surfacing because of a pressure cooker and a hack into the Associated Press Twitter Account?  Not really.  Those are the pretenses, but not the real reasons.  After all, government agencies have been trying for easier access to our virtual communications… long before CISPA ever came on the scene.  And drone programs were around for years in our foreign policy, but since 2005, we’ve had drones patrolling our southern border, and around 2011 the Department of Defense (DoD) sent them well into Mexico to monitor any drug dealing activities.

The ACLU thinks there should be “strict laws and rules” in place to ensure that we can both enjoy the benefits from the technology without fear of our civil liberties being trampled in the process.  How is that possible when the Customs & Border Protection Agency (CBP), who was supposed to be using their Predator Drones to patrol the border, offers them to local police as well as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to use without any public knowledge or debate… to speak nothing of a WARRANT!?

I wish I could offer some simple solution like “write to your representative”.  But the reality is, there is a drone lobby and it’s not going anywhere.  It’s called the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International.  There are even “drone caucuses” in both the House and the Senate!  One particular company in California known as AeroVironment or “AV” sells over 80% of the drone fleet to the US Government.  They are looking for new and innovative ways to up their sales, so anything from private security firms to local municipalities are their low-hanging fruit.  The lines between our national defense military and our local police have been blurred considerably.  Local police are being cross trained into military grade individuals.  Our domestic police have been heavily militarized since 9/11 and are the ripe consumer for these drones, unfortunately.

Sadly, in corporatist America, all it takes is a lobby who creates government demand by catering to their authoritarian wish list, and a private company willing to make the deal with the devil(s).