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Questions over Domestic Drone Use Raise Privacy Concerns

by Beck Alleman, published

Illustration of a combat drone flying over barren mountains  by Paul Fleet via Illustration of a combat drone flying over barren mountains by Paul Fleet via

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as drones, can be tools for reconnaissance that law enforcement seldom use. One of the few times may have been to help track down infamous ex-cop Chris Dorner. A U.K. magazine, the Express, reported that authorities were using unarmed drones to find Dorner, citing a senior police source.

“The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him,” this senior police source said. “On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Before Dorner was apprehended, the LAPD would not confirm or deny the reports of authorities using drones, simply stating that they did not want to reveal to Dorner, who could have been watching the news, the exact means they were using.

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection denies these claims.

“Reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aircraft systems are being used are incorrect,” a CBP spokesperson said in an interview for IVN. “CBP [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] are not flying in support of the search.”

Even if authorities used drones in their search for Dorner, it would not be the first time. Although it is rare for drones to be used for domestic purposes, it has happened before. Tweet this article: Tweet

One of the few other examples was in December of 2011, when three men, thought to be brandishing rifles, hid somewhere in a 3,000 acre landscape in North Dakota. A Predator B drone was called in, and used its sensors to not only identify where the men were, but also show that they were, in fact, unarmed.

The reason drones are not used more widely in law enforcement is a complicated one.

One of the most important reasons is the breach of privacy widespread use of drones would cause. Because of their relatively cheap price and superior sensors, it would be easy to keep an entire neighborhood under constant, vigilant surveillance, and privacy advocates don't like it.

“Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it," said Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, in an interview with the LA Times. “"It could make us question the doctrine that you do not have privacy in public.” Tweet it: Tweet

The reason domestic drone use is seen as such a breach of privacy is that, for surveillance purposes, it has advantages over helicopters. Namely, they're smaller and harder to hit, can stay in the air longer than helicopters, and are cheaper per unit. They can also detect things like body heat and, in some cases, smells, making them much more versatile.

The privacy issue is driving some states to act.  Just last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that, if approved by the governor, would restrict drone use in Virginia until July 2015.

In Texas, one lawmaker proposed a law that would make it illegal to use a drone for illegal search and surveillance purposes. This law would not outlaw drones, per se, but make their use highly regulated, a move that could be the start of compromising terms between those who see drones as a necessity and those who see them as a breach of privacy.

Oregon and Nebraska are also attempting to put into place similar sanctions as Texas, making drones highly regulated across the country.

These regulative laws will force proponents of drones to rethink exactly how they want to implement them for domestic use. The surest way is to agree to either use them sparingly or downgrade their surveillance systems.

Even now, the process for acquiring and using a drone is an arduous one, meaning that drones are only used for the most dire of national security purposes.

Drones are the wave of the future, despite many protests about privacy concerns. These are simply an obstacle to be negotiated in the years to come. In the near future law enforcement officials could each have their own squads of drones for surveillance use. For now, however, they must stick with traditional methods of police helicopters, K-9 units, and legwork.

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