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Drones as spies

Mention the word "drone" and most individuals conjure up images of targeted terrorists being shot at from above. Military applications of unmanned aerial vehicles certainly do dominate the market, but there are any number of private-sector uses as well.

And that market is about to explode. Manufacturers of drones anticipate demand for their products in the U.S. alone quickly will become a multi-billion dollar business. Farmers, ranchers, oil companies, environmentalists and law enforcement agencies all see the practicality and efficiency of surveillance from the sky without requiring pilots.

Congress is paying close attention to the potential preponderance of remote aircraft in the sky. It has told the Federal Aviation Administration to devise regulations concerning safety.

The public is paying close attention as well. And not just the extremist conspiracy theorists online who worry about regular Americans being gunned down arbitrarily. Regular citizens are cognizant of potential privacy issues that don't square with the U.S. Constitution.

When equipped with sophisticated cameras, drones will be capable of "seeing" through walls and recording conversations from seemingly invisible vantage points. Such information could prove invaluable to law enforcement. And, given the number of law-abiding people who would see nothing wrong with preventing crime through any means necessary, there likely will be many members of Congress prepared to authorize such use along with the more ordinary domestic applications.

At least a significant minority of Americans -- 36 percent -- surveyed last fall said they would oppose using drones to assist law enforcement. We would agree with this segment of society, at least until proper warrants obtained because there was probable cause come into play. Otherwise, random monitoring would appear to be one of those "unreasonable searches" the Fourth Amendment guarantees shall not be violated.

We would hope Congress recognizes there is more to this issue than safety concerns. Privacy concerns need to be front and center as the domestic drone business takes flight.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net