The Washington Post reports on possible privacy problems with the use of aerial drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) to conduct surveillance in the United States. (Be sure to take a look at the Post’s graphic on the specs, abilities and uses of different UAVs.)
The drone technology that has revolutionized warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is entering the national airspace: Unmanned aircraft are patrolling the border with Mexico, searching for missing persons over difficult terrain, flying into hurricanes to collect weather data, photographing traffic accident scenes and tracking the spread of forest fires.
But the operation outside Austin presaged what could prove to be one of the most far-reaching and potentially controversial uses of drones: as a new and relatively cheap surveillance tool in domestic law enforcement.
For now, the use of drones for high-risk operations is exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration – which controls the national airspace – requires the few police departments with drones to seek emergency authorization if they want to deploy one in an actual operation. Because of concerns about safety, it only occasionally grants permission.
But by 2013, the FAA expects to have formulated new rules that would allow police across the country to routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above the ground – high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.
Such technology could allow police to record the activities of the public below with high-resolution, infrared and thermal-imaging cameras. […]
But when drones come to perch in numbers over American communities, they will drive fresh debates about the boundaries of privacy. The sheer power of some of the cameras that can be mounted on them is likely to bring fresh search-and-seizure cases before the courts, and concern about the technology’s potential misuse could unsettle the public. […]
Still, Joseph J. Vacek, a professor in the Aviation Department at the University of North Dakota who has studied the potential use of drones in law enforcement, said the main objections to the use of domestic drones will probably have little to do with the Constitution.
“Where I see the challenge is the social norm,” Vacek said. “Most people are not okay with constant watching. That hover-and-stare capability used to its maximum potential will probably ruffle a lot of civic feathers.”