Defense & National Security

Domestic drones unchecked by federal agencies, civilian privacy rights at risk

Domestic drones unchecked by federal agencies, civilian privacy rights at risk

The Department of Homeland Security refused to provide testimony at a hearing Thursday discussing civilian privacy from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones. There is currently no federal agency protecting civilian privacy rights, and while DHS was recommended four years ago by the Government Accountability Office to take action to address drone regulation, they have continued to dodge the advice.

Non-government drones will be allowed to be deployed nationwide by 2015, Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) of the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management explained in his written statement. Highways in the sky with unmanned aerial vehicles might not be as futuristic as it once seemed. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration expostulates  more than 30,000 drones will be darting through U.S. airspace by 2020, according to a July 2 article by Human Events on military drone usage.

“People can accept that these [drones] are being used for a manhunt, as we use law enforcement helicopters … in the sky for various law enforcement purposes,” McCaul told the panel. “What they don’t want to see is sort of spying without any mission involved in the plan.”

Witness Amie Stepanovich from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) stated that the DHS has one of the most vigorous privacy offices in the federal government, yet they have not even done a privacy impact assessment on their own drone program.

“We think that would be a great first step, and after that has been completed, to really go in to monitor [drones] and determine what they can be used for and what they cannot be used for,” Stepanovich said.

While the DHS refuses to take action, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) introduced June 7 the “Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012.”  The bill would prohibit using drones to gather evidence and information against alleged criminals without a warrant while allowing their use for border patrol security and high-risk scenarios.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) called attention to the Fourth Amendment, Search and Seizure Clause, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court has already developed case law concerning its interpretation. These accepted interpretations include the Hester v. United States open fields doctrine. This doctrine states that “the special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ is not extended to the open fields.” Cuellar stated that as future legislation is being drafted, the previous decisions of the Supreme Court must be kept in mind.

McCaul told the witnesses that it is clear that “DHS does have a role here to play whether it be a security analysis, working with state and locals, [or] with privacy,” and he hopes that they step up and take the proper precautions.

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