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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: Importance of Gun Ownership
By Ringold on 9/14/2012 9:27:07 PM , Rating: 1
Gun's are a "worthless device for changing government?"

Consider first that full-auto is mostly a waste of ammo, and watching any foreigner use their AK in full auto usually proves how useless it is asides from making noise.

Then consider all the people in Libya that know better (though they also had air support). Syria's resistance has no such air support, though, and they're making do. I'd argue a bolt-action in the hands of a well practiced lifelong hunter or enthusiast is worth at least 3 untrained teenagers from the sticks of Syria. America has a deeply ingrained shooting and marksmanship culture; partly why the South could hand the North its ass as well as it did, despite weak logistical support and inferior numbers.

Also, gun owners are a radical few? I'm too lazy to google, but I'm pretty sure its a slight majority of households that own a firearm, and maybe homes that have a firearm have multiple ones. I've got 3 -- at the moment. A .22 for fun, a 7.62R Mosin for its historical value (and zombies or bolsheviks), and a .45 for anybody that think I'd be an easy mark.

Anyway, I agree with Reclaimer. Shooting down drones over ones property, should be hailed as an act of ultimate patriotism. If the government wants to flood the skies with drones that amount to a huge fishing expedition and surveillance of innocent Americans, I think they're fair game.

New legislation could change my mind on it, but for now this is something I'd expect from the USSR, not here.

RE: Importance of Gun Ownership
By mcnabney on 9/15/2012 12:11:33 AM , Rating: 2
Eghm, the South did benefit from more marksmen, but they also benefited from fighting on their home turf (they didn't in Gettysburg, PA and look what happened) and also generally being able to plan when/where to fight - gaining massive tactical advantage (see: Burnside and Fredricksburg). They had outstanding leaders, but the Union had good ones too. The American militiamen in the Revolutionary War routinely got their asses kicked by the well disciplined British soldiers and mercs. Shooting experience is good, but top training and discipline is better.

RE: Importance of Gun Ownership
By madtruths on 9/15/2012 12:46:29 AM , Rating: 2
Guerrilla Warfare anyone? It seems to have a long history of working...

RE: Importance of Gun Ownership
By Ringold on 9/15/2012 1:19:28 PM , Rating: 3
One of the least talked about things about General Robert E Lee I think is that he spared America the incredibly awful experience so many other countries have had with guerrilla warfare. Prior to surrendering, people around him were urging him to let the men go to bush, fight a guerrilla war, wear down the Union's will. Lee, thankfully for everybody, decided to take defeat honorably. If he hadn't, I think US history would've been much nastier; Italy still has an active mafia, Spain until recently had its Basque separatists. If not for Lee's surrender, we might still have active insurgents.

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