Americans push back against domestic drones
Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are widely used by the United States against foreign targets. But their use inside the US is more controversial. Many Americans fear an infringement of their privacy rights due to the rapid increase of drones being purchased by private individuals and the various governments.
Drones are currently used in the US for everything from search and rescue missions, to snapping survey pictures for oil and gas companies. The tiny cameras found inside are capturing thousands of images of the US landscape every day.
But what concerns many Americans is that the remote controlled aircraft can also be armed with rubber bullets, electric shock weapons and even tear gas. They go by names like "Skysee," "Dragon Flyer," "Shadow Hawk" and even the "Hummingbird". It's a drone so small it can fit in the palm of your hand making its use almost undetectable.
The stealthy capability of drones is what Mayor Satyendra Singh Huja, of Charlotsville, Virginia, doesn't like.
There are more than 340 drones already licensed in the US to the military, police departments and even universities. It’s just one reason Huja’s city council voted recently to ban the use of drones for domestic surveillance in its airspace for the next two years.
"The technology is not bad in itself, but our concern is on the individual's privacy," Huja told me.
But the mayor's efforts are largely symbolic as federal law supersedes any regional legislation.
The US Congress has also already directed the Federal Aviation Administration to streamline approving applications for even more domestic drones. By 2020, it's expected 30,000 drones will be operating over the US.
Constitutional lawyer and head of The Rutherford Institute John Whitehead helped the city of Charlottesville draft its law restricting the use drones. He said at least 13 US states are also considering legislation to prohibit drones for surveillance.
Whitehead told me, "If you're watched everywhere you go, how’s that going to affect you psychologically? We need to rethink what we’re doing in this country, with the drone technology. The NSA [National Security Agency] is looking at our every email, text message and Facebook post. We’re moving into a total surveillance state."
Whitehead argues the US constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches without a warrant and the use of drones violates that right.
But Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos is not so sure. She says while privacy rights are important, banning drones outright limits its law enforcement benefits.
"Outlawing drones because they can be used to do bad things is like outlawing airplanes because they can be used to drop bombs. We need to say what acceptable use is, but not write off the whole technology," said Szakos.
Huja is not convinced.
"The citizens of this country do care for individual rights and privacy. Government should not interfere with that."
This is why privacy advocates like Huja are pushing Congress for federal legislation. He wants to prevent widespread intrusions that right now are almost certain with the expansion of domestic drone surveillance in the United States.