By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

Technology, particularly as it relates to its use by government agencies, is advancing faster than legislators and watchdog groups can formulate policies to regulate it.  The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, as they formally known, is no exception.
While drones are better known for their use in overseas military operations for surveillance, reconnaissance, and even targeted killings, they will soon be more common in the United States.  And with Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent endorsement of their use, drones operated by local law enforcement will likely be flying in Virginia airspace in no time.
Drones can be used for many purposes.  According to media reports, Virginia Tech already has a permit to use drones for scientific purposes.  Law enforcement says the technology will be useful to find missing persons, and assist in traffic control or hostage situations, as well as other public safety concerns.
What are we worried about then?
The same technology that can help find missing persons or assist in traffic control can also be used to surreptitiously track the movements of innocent people.  The drones that can spy on overseas terrorist cells could be used to monitor and disperse peaceful protests.  In Houston, Texas it was suggested that drones might be used to issue traffic tickets. With high-powered zoom on cameras, police could peek into our homes, and with thermal imaging they can see where people are in a building.
So, what are we going to do about it?
The initial outrage from across the political spectrum to Gov. McDonnell’s comments on the use of drones is encouraging.  It illustrates that many will be concerned about the domestic use of drones.  Law enforcement may be chomping at the bit to get their hands on a technology that can be more cost effective and efficient to use than trained police officers, but the public isn’t ready to come under constant surveillance.
Ours is a society that prides itself on liberty and the freedom to move about in our communities without being tracked by Big Brother.  We’re not comfortable with the government spying on our peaceful protests, or following us as we go to work then the doctor’s office and back into our homes.  With these scenarios made possible with the use of drones paired with other technologies, we are right to be wary.
Our reservations must translate into political action. The ACLU of Virginia will encourage legislators and others with oversight authority to institute policies restricting and regulating the domestic use of drones.  Clear guidelines must be established to ensure that this technology isn’t used to monitor a general geographic area indiscriminately. Government authorities need to be required to obtain warrants before using drones to track, monitor or observe us, just as the Supreme Court has now confirmed they must do to use GPS tracking.  Data retention and security policies and procedures to audit the use, efficacy and efficiency of the technology also must be established.
While unmanned aerial vehicles have great possibilities for scientific exploration and first responder protections, the increased use of technology must not come at the expense of our privacy or our liberty.  We have a responsibility to check the government’s use of new gadgets when it’s clear that they have the potential to infringe on our privacy rights and threaten our First Amendment freedoms.
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Learn more: National ACLU’s Report- “Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance.”

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