Senate Explores Private and Law Enforcement Use of Drones in U.S.



By Noel Brinkerhoff
All Gov
March 24, 2013

It may not be long before drones become a common sight over the skies of the United States, which from a legal and privacy standpoint is far from ready, a congressional panel was told this week.

Experts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer their perspectives on what it will mean for Americans once drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) become the norm domestically.

Unlike the large, missile-laden drones used by the military, UAVs of much smaller size are already available to almost anyone—from law enforcement to criminals to the media.

A major concern raised during the hearing was the use of drones to spy on individuals, who may have little recourse to stop or punish those behind unwanted snooping unless new laws are adopted.

The Fourth Amendment does protect against unauthorized surveillance or searches, and there are laws on the books that address spying by companies, for instance. But these legal protections were crafted long before drones came into existence, which could mean lots of gray area in the law.

“There’s very little in American privacy law that would limit the use of drones for surveillance,” Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, told the committee. “Drones drive down the cost of surveillance considerably. We worry that the incidence of surveillance will go up.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, “Just because the government may comply with the Constitution does not mean they should be able to constantly surveil, like Big Brother.”

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