Hello Drones, Goodbye Privacy

A future where unmanned surveillance drones zip through the skies keeping tabs on civilians is no longer relegated to dystopic novels. The panopticon has arrived and privacy rights are in danger.

In less than three months, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will allow law enforcement agencies to operate drones in U.S. airspace, and by 2015, commercial drones will be permitted as well. More troublingly, the ink has hardly dried on the new FAA regulations and Pentagon officials are already pushing to fly the same powerful military drones that track terrorists abroad in the United States.

With these aircraft hovering above our heads, privacy is at risk as drone technology has far outpaced the development of corresponding regulatory laws.

Drones -- as small as hummingbirds and as large as the 116-foot wingspan Global Hawk -- can hover for hours silently observing individuals with advanced surveillance tools like thermal sensors, cell-phone eavesdropping devices, Wi-Fi network hacking tools, and sophisticated video technology like the military's Gorgon Stare, which can observe an entire city from multiple angles and track several targets at once.

For the most part, when these high-tech surveillance tools have been challenged in court, judicial rulings have largely erred on the side of law enforcement agencies over individual rights.

"Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage," writes Ryan Calo, the director for Privacy and Robotics at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society. "Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments."

As evidence, Calo points to a 1986 Supreme Court case which upholds the right of local police to fly over residents' backyards without a search warrant. In addition, in 1989, the Supreme Court admitted evidence from a police officer in a helicopter who peeked through two missing panels in a greenhouse and saw a marijuana growing operation.

On a brighter note, Calo believes that the egregious violations of privacy rights that drones represent "could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century."

The growing ubiquity of both government and private drones will inevitably raise difficult questions like how long can they follow an individual and will it require a warrant, can drones with thermal sensors be used to detect individuals growing marijuana indoors, and can images taken by drones be sold to third parties.

But before these questions are answered, drones will likely become ubiquitous considering the lobbying might of the Congressional "Drone Caucus."

The Drone Caucus, a collection of fifty representatives primarily from districts in Southern California, a major unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturing hub, has proven so effective in expanding the government's use of drones it allocated $32 million for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to purchase three new aerial surveillance drones, despite the agency's objections.

"We didn't ask for them," and the agency lacks the resources and manpower to even fly the additional surveillance vehicles, said an anonymous DHS official speaking to the Los Angeles Times.

In just seven years, drones have come to account for nearly one-third of the military's aircraft. In 2005, only 5 percent of military airplanes were unmanned, but now the Pentagon owns nearly 7,500 drones. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, much of the military's fleet will be returning to the United States and it is doubtful that the planes will sit idly in hangars.

If recent trends are any indication, military drone flights could be coming sooner than we think. DHS already flies Predator drones along the border and is entertaining the notion of outfitting its fleet with military-grade visual sensors, which can see as much as four square miles at once.

Even if these drones are only deployed at borders and airports, those are still areas where U.S. citizens live and are protected by the Constitution. Furthermore, with more and more military technology being sold to local police departments, it is only a matter of time before these intrusive sensors make their way to our neighborhoods.

Drones have their legitimate uses -- they can help first responders search for missing persons, farmers can use them to spot irrigation leaks, and reporters can use them to gather news -- but as an emerging technology that is largely unregulated, we must carefully monitor how and what they are used for to ensure that our personal freedoms are protected.