As a United States Senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama declared his opposition to the Patriot Act and other laws that violated the privacy of the American people. Today however, it is precisely President Obama and his administration who lead a full-front attack on our civil liberties by broadening the laws that govern the use of drones domestically.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued more than 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators within the United States since 2007 –a figure hcigher than what was previously known. Of the permits, the FAA has indicated that only 327 remain valid. The operators of these drones include universities, police departments across the country, state transportation departments, and at least seven federal agencies.
In January of 2011, Miami-Dade became the first police department to use camera carrying drones to patrol their city. Later on that year, the Houston area Montgomery County Sheriff’s office followed suit, and further declared that their newly acquired helicopter drone could eventually even carry weapons, but that their citizens should not become concerned as they would only use their $300,000 dollar acquisition against criminals.
This past Valentine’s day, President Obama signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This legislation, that was described as a necessary step to modernize aviation regulation and reduce waste within the FAA, makes it possible to fully integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the U.S. airspace – effective immediately. As a consequence, RT.com reports that it is calculated that by late 2015 there will be more than 30,000 non-military surveillance drones flying in our skies, and MilitaryTimes.com asserts that “the next decade could see the unmanned aircraft market become a $90 billion industry.”
To make things more unsettling, The Daily Mail has published an article in which they show us how the U.S. Air Force is developing micro-drones — or Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) — the size of small birds or large insects, that would revolutionize the way warfare and surveillance are currently conducted. Needless to say, it is only a matter of time before these start being used on U.S. soil.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expressed its decision to advance a plan to acquire drones that could serve as surveillance tools in large public safety or disaster scenarios. While these drones have a limited flying range of about two hours, DHS has also expressed its interest in acquiring military-style drones that could surveil up to four square-miles at a time. Not surprisingly, the funding for many of the drones that are currently being used by Police and Sheriff departments in America came from federal grants awarded to them by the DHS.
In light of these new developments, and to quell the public outcry generated by drone use, the Federal government has promised that it will not allow armed drones to fly in our country. Whether or not they keep their promise remains to be seen. Our main concern as United States citizens should be the appalling and almost irreparable consequences that these kind of laws have on our rights and privacy.
Surveillance drones flying over our skies potentially constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment and due process. While government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels might have the best intentions when it comes to using drones to combat criminals, they may realize the unintended consequences of their actions, which could result in warrantless searches, surveillance, and the gathering of information on U.S. citizens.
Let us not forget what Benjamin Franklin once said:
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”