Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s … a drone, and it’s watching you. That’s what privacy advocates fear from a bill Congress passed this week to make it easier for the government to fly unmanned spy planes in U.S. airspace.
The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama is expected to sign, also orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015.
advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for
electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and
eventually by private companies as well.
“There are serious policy
questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both
government agencies and commercial entities,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation also is “concerned about the implications for surveillance by government agencies,” said attorney Jennifer Lynch.
provision in the legislation is the fruit of “a huge push by lawmakers
and the defense sector to expand the use of drones” in American
airspace, she added.
According to some estimates, the commercial
drone market in the United States could be worth hundreds of millions of
dollars once the FAA clears their use.
The agency projects that 30,000 drones could be in the nation’s skies by 2020.
The highest-profile use of drones by the United States has been in the CIA’s armed Predator-drone program, which targets al Qaeda
terrorist leaders. But the vast majority of U.S. drone missions, even
in war zones, are flown for surveillance. Some drones are as small as
model aircraft, while others have the wingspan of a full-size jet.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. use of drone surveillance has grown so rapidly that it has created a glut of video material to be analyzed.
The legislation would order the FAA,
before the end of the year, to expedite the process through which it
authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and
other agencies. The FAA
currently issues certificates, which can cover multiple flights by more
than one aircraft in a particular area, on a case-by-case basis.
The Department of Homeland Security is the only federal agency to discuss openly its use of drones in domestic airspace.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the department, operates nine drones, variants of the CIA’s
feared Predator. The aircraft, which are flown remotely by a team of 80
fully qualified pilots, are used principally for border and
counternarcotics surveillance under four long-term FAA certificates.
say they can be used on a short-term basis for a variety of other
public-safety and emergency-management missions if a separate
certificate is issued for that mission.
“It’s not all about surveillance,” Mr. Aftergood said.