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Wed Feb 20, 2013, 04:02 PM

Restricting Drones Before Use of the Technology for Total Surveillance Becomes Normal

The movement to restrict drone use by law enforcement, colleges, universities, government agencies, businesses and private individuals is having an impact because those behind it are concerned about what the world will be like in the future and not what it is like now. Those raising concerns about drones are focused on what a future world where drones engage in wholesale surveillance and dominate United States airspace could be like. They recognize the time to have lawmakers take action is now, not later when the drone industry has fully grown and become a fixture in American industry and a special interest that holds political leaders captive.

All of which is why this editorial from The Economist deserves attention. As evidenced by the cartoon showing a drone overlooking an older gentleman reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the board of editors does not share the same fears of civil liberties advocates. They are coolly and somewhat glibly dismissive of concerns people have because the world of which advocates are afraid does not exist yet.

…Their fears are centred on the prospect of surveillance. Since drones can be far cheaper to buy than helicopters—tens of thousands of dollars, as against a few million—the worry is that cameras will be sent up into the sky far more frequently. Even if they are not on a deliberate spy mission, they may capture incidental footage that leads to an investigation, such as evidence of marijuana plantations. Still, at least in Mesa County, the drones have been used for search and rescue efforts and photographing crime scenes. “We’re not spying on everybody,” says Mr Miller. “We haven’t done a single surveillance mission.”

In any case, it may not be so easy for a police department to perform round-the-clock surveillance. Their drones are much less sophisticated than military types like Predators, which can remain aloft for 40 hours at a height of 25,000 feet or 8,000 metres (although the Department of Homeland Security has purchased ten Reapers, a new version of the Predator, for border patrols.) The FAA specifies that drones used by public-safety agencies must weigh 4.4lb (2 kilograms) or less, which can be increased to 25lb if the operator is judged proficient. And they are governed by strict rules in the air. They cannot fly higher than 400 feet and must remain within the line of sight of the operator… [emphasis added]


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