Domestic drone bill upsets civil liberties advocates

WASHINGTON — A leading Civil liberties group is outraged that the Senate passed a measure that would order the federal government to further open U.S. skies to drones.

The bill, which provides four more years of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, would require the FAA to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to use unmanned aircraft and open U.S. airspace to commercial drones by 2015.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized Congress for disregarding privacy risks associated with domestic drones and warned the bill could lead to boundless surveillance of U.S. citizens.

The organization said the bill will “push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.”

It took to Twitter to protest the bill, publishing the following tweets over the week:

  • “Domestic #drone bill would push nation toward aerial #surveillance w/o adequate #privacy protections”
  • “Domestic #drones are potentially extremely power #surveillance tools & must be subject to checks and balances”
  • “#Congress must carefully consider the #privacy implications that domestic #drone technology can lead to.”

The legislators responsible for the bill, however, do not seem to share the ACLU’s reservations. The section of the bill about drones does not mention civil liberties or privacy, and no senators discussed privacy during the debate of the bill on the Senate floor.

Instead, senators seem excited about the technology.

“We are seeing more and more applications of unmanned aircraft,” said Sen. Kay Hutichison, R-Texas, during the Senate debate, pointing to applications in border security, research and law enforcement.

The bill attracted bipartisan support in the Senate, passing by a vote of 75-25. Dissent revolved mainly around labor issues concerning other parts of the bill, according to the Chicago Tribune. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for signing.

Although the federal government already allows drones to be used in border patrol and, in special circumstances, law enforcement, the new bill sets the country on the path toward widespread drone use.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that individuals to do not have privacy rights when it comes to aerial surveillance.

However, the court also ruled last month that law enforcement agencies need a warrant to conduct long-term tracking of suspect’s car with a GPS tracker. Five justices alluded to the  “mosaic theory” of privacy, which states that an individual’s comprehensive history of public activities is protected though isolated actions are not. The theory may apply to aerial surveillance.

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