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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Big Brother May Be Watching From a Drone…And Possibly Shooting!

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According to an AP article today, predictions that multitudes of unmanned drones could be flying here within a decade are raising the specter of a “surveillance society” in which no home or backyard would be off limits to prying eyes overhead. Law enforcement, oil companies, farmers, real estate agents and many others have seen the technology that was pioneered on battlefields, and they are eager to put it to use.

The government is in the early stages of devising rules for the unmanned aircraft. By the end of 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a little less than 300 permits for civilian use of drones.

Public worries about drones have been flamed by hyperbole spread by bloggers and certain segments of the conservative media. Indeed, one video blog posted on YouTube is entitled, "30,000 Armed Drones to be Used Against Americans." The commentator accuses the federal government of secretly phasing in the weaponization of American skies. The source cited for this video blog is the Drudge Report. Somehow, this rant goes from drones to big banks. Notwithstanding such hyperbolic fearmongering, the public has every reason to be concerned. I do agree with the "anti-globalist" commentator in the above-referenced video blog that "This is beyond 1984."

There may be legitimate uses for domestic drones. Power companies want drones to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential. Police departments want them to chase crooks, conduct search and rescue missions and catch speeders. However, the potential for misuse is truly frightening.

Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican congressman from Louisiana's coastal bayou country, said constituents have stopped him while shopping at Walmart to talk about their concerns. "There is a distrust amongst the people who have come and discussed this issue with me about our government," Landry said. "It's raising an alarm with the American public." Another GOP freshman, Rep. Austin Scott, said he first learned of the issue when someone shouted out a question about drones at a Republican Party meeting in his Georgia district two months ago.

Concern about this issue is not partisan. Here in Virginia, our Republican governor sparked a controversy when he came out in favor of use of drones by Virginia police departments. When Governor McDonnell,suggested during an interview on Washington radio station WTOP last month that drones be used by police since they've done such a good job on foreign battlefields, the political backlash was swift. NetRightDaily complained: "This seems like something a fascist would do. … McDonnell isn't pro-Big Government, he is pro-HUGE Government."

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Va., which provides legal assistance in support of civil liberties and conservative causes, warned the governor, "America is not a battlefield, and the citizens of this nation are not insurgents in need of vanquishing."

There is also legitimate concern among civil liberties advocates that government and private-sector drones will be used to gather information on Americans without their knowledge. We know that Google and cell phone providers are already complicit in such activities, particularly when the government invokes the "Patriot Act." Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to "a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities," the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report last December. An ACLU lobbyist, Chris Calabrese, said that when he speaks to audiences about privacy issues, drones are what "everybody just perks up over." "People are interested in the technology, they are interested in the implications and they worry about being under surveillance from the skies," he said.

The anxiety has spilled into Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have been meeting to discuss legislation that would broadly address the civil-liberty issues. A Landry provision in a defense spending bill would prohibit information gathered by military drones without a warrant from being used as evidence in court. A provision that Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., added to another bill would prohibit the Homeland Security Department from arming its drones, including ones used to patrol the border.

Scott and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced identical bills to prohibit any government agency from using a drone to "gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation" without a warrant.

"I just don't like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates," Paul said in an interview, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks. Amen.

Calabrese, the ACLU lobbyist, called Paul's office as soon as he heard about the bill. I told them we think they are starting from the right place," Calabrese said. "You should need some kind of basis before you use a drone to spy on someone." There is and should be a liberal and conservative consensus on this issue.

Who wants to see over -zealous law enforcement offices with weaponized drones at their disposal? I do not. For that matter, if I am not under investigation for breaking the law, I expect to retain some level of privacy rights in my own back yard. I do not expect the government to be watching.