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Three bills look to limit use amid concerns that government is prepping for massive spy drone rollout

"Every single day / And every word you say / Every game you play, every night you stay / I'll be watching you
Oh, can't you see / You belong to me?

...that famous line of Sting and the Police perhaps best summarizes the warning delivered in a report released last week by the Congressional Research Service that suggests the growing army of drones flying over the U.S. airspace could be used to continuously monitor U.S. citizens.

I. Plans for Domestic Drone Spying Escalate 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in a recent report that it expects 30,000 commercial and government drones to be flying over the U.S. airspace within 20 years.  The drones will be cheap, will be able to stay aloft continuously, and can even be as small as an insect (so-called "nano-drones").  All of that makes the perfect vehicle for something many great writers and philosophers have long feared -- ubiquitous, uninterrupted government surveillance.

While it sounds like a paranoid flight of fantasy, that's precisely the issue that was being discussed in last week's report.  It comments, "In the near future, law enforcement organizations might seek to outfit drones with facial recognition or soft biometric recognition, which can recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color."

Reaper drones
Reaper drones are currently being used over U.S. airspace. [Image Source: The Real Revo]

Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) is among the major defense contractors field testing a model which could be used to ubiquitously spy on citizens of both America and foreign nations -- a flyer named "Stalker".  Stalker drones get a charge from ground-based lasers, allowing them to continuously stay aloft, surveying individuals 24-7 in an urban landscape.  Solar panels have also been explored as a way of keeping drones aloft.

Stalker Drone
The Stalker Drone uses periodic laser recharges to stay aloft for continuous surveillance.
[Image Source: LaserMotive]

Some companies are examining the possibility of deploying armed drones (war drones) over U.S. soil to provide intelligence and law enforcement agencies a weapon in the sky to use against "criminals".

III. Warrantless Monitoring?

A key question is whether such spying would be legal without warrant, an allowance that could be tantamout to leaving the door open to abuse.

Based on current U.S. court precedent, the report hypothesizes that courts would deem nano-drone visual or heat-image surveillance of U.S. citizens inside their homes to be illegal.  However, it is less clear whether drones would be disallowed to stalk Americans in their backyards, swimming pools, deck, or porch.  And intelligence agencies would likely be able to freely spy on people in public locations.

Obama Big Brother
President Barack Obama has supported a variety of warrantless spying measures on U.S. citizens, including wireless phonetaps. Republican presidential Mitt Romney has also supported warrantless spying efforts.  [Image Source: Fits News]

But the researchers also note that the drones' ability to stay in the air indefinitely or for extended periods of time (or even days), could sway courts to deem warrantless drone monitoring of Americans to be a Fourth Amendment violation.  Comments the report:
This capability may sway a court’s determination of whether certain types of warrant-less drone surveillance are compatible with the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The important phrasing there is "unreasonable searches", which many would argue would include continuous drone surveillance.

III. Bills on the Table, Question of Citizens Shooting Down Drones Looms

The good news is that there are several proposals floating around Congress to block using drones to spy on Americans without warrant.  The bad news is that past efforts to limit warrantless drone use have been largely struck down, and that the current efforts do not necessarily ban all kinds of warrantless use.

According to the summary by The Hill, three measures are currently on the table, all penned by Republicans in Congress.

One of the measures is very specific, seeking to narrow the scope of a specific agency's use of drone monitoring.  

Entitled the Farmers Privacy Act (H.R. 5961), this measure is written by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Virg.).  The bill looks to prevent the U.S. Environmental Agency for using drones to hunt for regulatory violations -- particularly with farms.  Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had proposed a similar, but less strict prohibition which would have banned EPA drone use if it was more expensive than traditional inspections.  The amendment to the "farm bill" (The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240)) was struck down.

The other two bills would be more ubiquitous.  The Preserving American Privacy Act would strictly limit surveillance of U.S. citizens by drones to only be allowed with warrant in the investigation of felonies.  That bill is written by Rep. Ted Poe's (R-Texas).  A second bill by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Georgia) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), dubbed the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, would require police departments to obtain a warrant, in most cases, before using drones.  The Sen. Paul version is stricter, in that it contains an extra provision to prevent warrantless evidence from being used against Americans in a court of law.

U.S. police trooper
Several bills are looking to restrict police use of drones. [Image Source: Reuters]

It is unclear if any of these measures will pass.

One aspect of the measure not discussed by the report is what the legal rammifications would be of a legally armed U.S. citizens shooting down or hacking a drone that was spying on them or a nearby neighbor.  As unlikely as that scenario sounds, it could happen if use soars.

It can be safely presumed that the responsible agency would try to charge the citizen for destroying federal property, obstruction of justice, or other similar charges.  The real question is what the courts would make of such a case.

Sources: FAS, CBO

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RE: Difficult at best
By JasonMick on 9/14/2012 4:11:26 PM , Rating: 2
Sniper rifles aren't that hard to buy from a kit. I think you would be surprised at how many gun enthusiasts own one....

Likely not legal in many regions, but has that stopped people with automatics?

I agree, though, for a higher fliers you'd definitely need something with a high effective range and narrow MOA.

RE: Difficult at best
By RufusM on 9/14/2012 4:31:07 PM , Rating: 2
If this thing is operating at 30,000 feet a gun has basically no chance at taking it out; even with a long-range anti-material .50 cal sniper rifle.

I'm sure there will be industrious people that can find a way though. It's certainly possible to concoct a DIY heat-seeking or laser-guided missile.

RE: Difficult at best
By gwem557 on 9/14/2012 4:59:27 PM , Rating: 5
Yeah, that's just what we friggin' need, is people concocting home-made heat-seeking missiles and shooting them into skies full of airliners.

But hey, I'm sure their self-imposed quality control techniques will ENSURE that they only hit what they're aiming at?

RE: Difficult at best
By Reclaimer77 on 9/14/2012 5:22:54 PM , Rating: 4
And military grade drones that could be armed is SO much better...

RE: Difficult at best
By Manch on 9/16/2012 7:24:51 AM , Rating: 2
Lowtech crap sometimes does alot of damage. I can't imagine what, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools!

RE: Difficult at best
By Manch on 9/16/2012 7:23:16 AM , Rating: 2
Buy stock in Testers. People are about to make a run on model rocket parts!

RE: Difficult at best
By djcameron on 9/20/2012 12:03:24 PM , Rating: 2
It wouldn't be that difficult to devise a low-tech flak-system using model rockets and M-100s wrapped in nails. Could even detonate via a smartphone rather than attempting to guess the altitude.

RE: Difficult at best
By FaaR on 9/14/2012 6:00:55 PM , Rating: 2
It's certainly POSSIBLE to concoct home-made heat-seeking or - LOL! - laser guided missiles, but considering the materials, techniques and so on required I don't think that more than a mere handful of well-organized GROUPS could accomplish something like that.

It's not like banging a couple pots and pans together and boom, it's done you know...

RE: Difficult at best
By JKflipflop98 on 9/15/2012 4:56:42 AM , Rating: 2
Now that the science is well established, a guided rocket isn't really that difficult to make. You can build a IR-seeking guidance device with off the shelf parts for under 500 bucks.

And to be clear here, we're not talking very big rockets. . . you don't need a hellfire to take out a spy drone.

RE: Difficult at best
By FITCamaro on 9/15/2012 8:44:35 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah except most people don't have the capacity to write proper guidance software that locks onto a single target and stays locked on to it only. Then deactivates or self destructs properly if it fails to hit its target.

RE: Difficult at best
By gladiatorua on 9/15/2012 10:49:52 AM , Rating: 2
Except most people don't have to.
With current availability of open hardware platforms like Arduino, one person is enough.

RE: Difficult at best
By Ringold on 9/15/2012 1:13:17 PM , Rating: 2
Open-source weapons of war.. Hmm..

Well, I guess it was bound to happen.

News from the year 2022: Iran publishes open-source nuclear warhead plans?

RE: Difficult at best
By jRaskell on 9/17/2012 8:41:27 AM , Rating: 2
You can build a IR-seeking guidance device with off the shelf parts for under 500 bucks.

For 500 bucks, your IR-seeking guidance device is going to have a range of about... 50 feet, and I'm probably overestimating that. But, even assuming I'm grossly underestimating, even 10 times that range will be largely useless.

The hobby industry has a whole variety of sensors, hardware, and software to provide a large range of capabilities, but one thing it does NOT have is affordable long range capabilities.

RE: Difficult at best
By JKflipflop98 on 9/20/2012 7:48:20 AM , Rating: 2
The guidance device has a range of about 0 feet, actually. You kind of have to attach it to a rocket first, Mr VonBraun.

RE: Difficult at best
By lagomorpha on 9/14/2012 7:31:20 PM , Rating: 2
These things aren't using heat engines, they're electric. I doubt there's much of a heat signature (especially for those stealth ones they're building). And as far as keeping a laser pointed on one so your missile can hit it, LOL good luck.

If you had a powerful enough HERF gun you might be able to fry the electronics or at least jam its signal though.

RE: Difficult at best
By headbox on 9/20/2012 3:25:42 PM , Rating: 2
you don't need much of a heat signature for a weapon to detect/hit a target against a sky backdrop.

Also, drones don't fly as high as you think, especially if they're trying to gather intel. If looking for a tank formation, they can be up high. If looking at what individual people are doing at night, it will be down low.

RE: Difficult at best
By madtruths on 9/14/2012 5:01:52 PM , Rating: 2
Well I understand "sniper" rifles are around, I myself own an R700 which is the base action for the M24/M40 sniper rifles used by the Army and Marines. The thing is, its already extremely difficult to hit a land based stationary target a mile away, MOA plays into but other things play into it like wind drift, humidity, temp, even the Coriolis Effect and except for the latter, all are ever changing. However the people below talking about hobby rocketry have a better chance.

The legal side of things though is no problem, as far as I know the only state to infringe on our rights so deeply as to ban certain "sniper" rifles is California, which banned the .50. And automatics are still legal by the way. look up NFA, I believe the cut off date was 1986, though I could be wrong, all thats required is a mountain of paperwork, a pile of cash and you can own a automatic rifle. Provided your not in select few states.

RE: Difficult at best
By mcnabney on 9/15/2012 12:05:17 AM , Rating: 2
My thoughts exactly. I have gotten used to making adjustments on the X&Y planes - I wouldn't even have a clue how to factor wind currents and accurate distances shooting into the Z plane. Hell, you would need to use tracers just to adjust your aim and even then the depth of field would play all kinds of tricks on you.

There is a reason that only 1 in a 1000 AAA shells in WW2 ever hit anything. And those could be set to burst at a specific altitude.

RE: Difficult at best
By FITCamaro on 9/15/2012 8:48:41 AM , Rating: 2
Well too be fair, most AA fire was at night when they couldn't really see the planes they were shooting at. So in many instances they were just blind firing into the air hoping to hit one of the planes they could hear but not always see. They also had nothing to accurately gauge the altitude of the plane.

RE: Difficult at best
By sandineyes on 9/14/2012 8:55:59 PM , Rating: 2
If you are at the point that you need a sniper rifle to hit the thing, which you probably won't, have you considered the inherent dangers of shooting a gun into the air? Those slugs will eventually land somewhere, and not as softly as a snowflake.

RE: Difficult at best
By mmatis on 9/15/2012 12:49:27 PM , Rating: 1
War, sir, is hell. And when the enemy has no concern about such matters, as is the case with the damnable swill using these drones...

RE: Difficult at best
By Schrag4 on 9/15/2012 9:15:46 AM , Rating: 3
There's nothing special about a "sniper rifle." Accuracy at range isn't going to help you hit a moving, flying object. The idea that "sniper rifles" are illegal in many regions is quite laughable - along with shotguns, they're pretty much the only types of weapons that gun-control advocates would go after last (handguns and the mythical "assault weapon" are first on their list). Just out of curiosity, where do you live? I'm guessing California or New Jersey, as those states have pretty much neutered gun ownership.

And automatics? Aside from the North Hollywood shootout, what other high-profile shootings involved automatics? Be honest, don't go googling for specific examples. My guess is you're generally thinking that gang-bangers use them in drive-by's or something. They're so hard to obtain and the penalties are so high for illegally owning them that they're much, MUCH rarer than I think you realize.

I agree, though, for a higher fliers you'd definitely need something with a high effective range and narrow MOA.

Again, MOA would be the very least of your concerns. Assuming your rifle could shoot zero MOA (impossible) you'd still need to know how fast the drone was moving, what direction it's moving, and how far away. You'd then need to line that flight path up with an arc that you know your bullet would take. It would be quite an impressive shot to call out, even with the most accurate of rifles. You'd have MUCH better luck with a relatively inaccurate high-capacity rifle and tracer rounds so you could see whether your rounds are leading too much, not leading enough, falling short, or whatever. It would not be a one-shot proposition.

At any rate, this whole notion that US citizens would be shooting down drones just seems so ridiculous to me. Have gun owners or the organizations they contribute to said they would shoot down domestic drones? Your article actually says it's NOT being talked about. It seems to be fantasy that you conjured.

By the way, I believe that most of the article is good food for thought. I just really question the title of the article. Are you actually hoping people will fight back by shooting drones down, or what? You seem to be asking a question that nobody else is asking.

One aspect of the measure not discussed by the report is what the legal rammifications would be of a legally armed U.S. citizens shooting down or hacking a drone that was spying on them or a nearby neighbor. As unlikely as that scenario sounds, it could happen if use soars.

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