Domestic Spy Drones Approved by Congress
by Zack Kaldveer, CFC Communications Director, Privacy Revolt
As if I planned it myself, just the day after I wrote a
major blog (see the last one) about 7 privacy threats that the Constitution can’t protect you from, Congress goes ahead and
APPROVES two of them for widespread use. The two I speak of, as detailed by
Alternet’s Tana Ganeva, have to do
with domestic spy drones. As I wrote at the time, apparently, these drones do
more than just kill innocent women and children around the world, but in fact,
are perfect domestic spying devices too.
As Ganeva also detailed, "An ACLU report from December says that local law
enforcement officials are pushing for domestic use of the new technology, as
are drone manufacturers. As Glenn Greenwald points out, drone makers
"continuously emphasize to investors and others that a major source of
business growth for their drone products will be domestic, non-military
Right now drones range in size from giant planes to hummingbird-sized, the ACLU
report says, with the technology improving all the time. Some can be operated
by only one officer, and others by no one at all. The report points to all the
sophisticated surveillance technology that can take flight on a drone,
including night vision, video analytics ("smart" surveillance that
can track activities, and with improvements in biometrics, specific people),
massive zoom, and the creepy see-through imaging, currently in development.
Similarly, there are also what are called "Super drones" that
actually know who you are, because, as reported by Wired magazine, the military
has given out research grants to several companies to spruce up these drones
with technology that lets them identify and track people on the move, or
"tagging, tracking, and locating" (TTL).
After writing about these disturbing possibilities, I then read these 3
OKs FAA Bill allowing drones in US, GPS air traffic control", "Bill
authorizes Use of Unmanned Drones in US Airspace", and "Drones
over US get OK by Congress"
Let’s go to the Chicago Tribune’s report on this...this clip was found about
halfway into the article:
The FAA is also required under the bill to provide military, commercial and
privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved
for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones
controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as
airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.
Currently, the FAA restricts drone use primarily to segregated blocks of
military airspace, border patrols and about 300 public agencies and their
private partners. Those public agencies are mainly restricted to flying small
unmanned aircraft at low altitudes away from airports and urban centers.
Within nine months of the bill ‘s
passage, the FAA is required to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones
with expanded access.
Interestingly, not much more was said or discussed about these new rules and
right in the article. So,
let’s go to the piece by the New American for more:
Big Brother is set to adopt a new form of surveillance after a bill passed by
Congress will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open U.S. airspace
to drone flights under a new four-year plan. The bill, which passed the House
last week and received bipartisan approval in the Senate on Monday, will
convert radar to an air traffic control system based on GPS technology, shifting
the country to an age where satellites are central to air traffic control and
unmanned drones glide freely throughout U.S. airspace.
By using GPS technology, congressional leaders argued, planes will land and
take off more efficiently, as pilots will be able to pinpoint the locations of
ground obstacles and nearby aircraft. The modernization procedures play into
the FAA’s ambitious plan to achieve 50-percent growth in air traffic over the
next 10 years. This legislation is "the best news that the airline
industry ever had," applauded Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). "It
will take us into a new era."
Furthermore, privacy advocates worry that the bill will open the door to
widespread use of drones for surveillance by law enforcement and, eventually,
by the private sector. Some analysts predict that the commercial drone market
in the U.S.
could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars once the FAA authorizes their
use, and that 30,000 drones could be flying domestically by 2020. "There
are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by
both government agencies and commercial entities," said Steven Aftergood,
director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy and legal group,
also is "concerned about the implications for surveillance by government
agencies," affirmed attorney Jennifer Lynch, and it is "a huge push
by lawmakers and the defense sector to expand the use of drones" in U.S. airspace.
"Congress ‘ and to the extent possible, the FAA ‘ need to impose some
rules to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this
technology will otherwise lead to," wrote American Civil Liberties Union
policy analyst Jay Stanley. "We don’t want to wonder, every time we step
out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every
Now that I have your attention, let’s
get to the Washington Times (an admitted rag of a paper…but that doesn’t mean they don’t
have anything of use to report):
Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s
… a drone, and it’s watching you.
That’s what privacy advocates fear
from a bill Congress passed this week to make it easier for the government to
fly unmanned spy planes in U.S. airspace.
Privacy advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for
electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and eventually by
private companies as well.
"There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and
surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities," said
Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation
of American Scientists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the FAA to obtain records of the
certifications. "We need a list so we can ask [each agency], ‘What are your policies on drone use? How do you
protect privacy? How do you ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment?’ " Ms. Lynch said.
"Currently, the only barrier to the routine use of drones for persistent
surveillance are the procedural requirements imposed by the FAA for the
issuance of certificates," said Amie Stepanovich, national security
counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research center in
Let’s remember what I posted last
week on this topic – before I knew Congress was about to legitimize all of it.
As Noah Shachtman wrote: Perhaps the idea of spy drones already makes you nervous.
Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the notion of an unblinking, robotic eye in the
sky that can watch your every move. If so, you may want to click away now.
Because if the Army has its way, drones won’t just be able to look at what you
do. They’ll be able to recognize your face ‘ and track you, based on how you
look. If the military machines assemble enough information, they might just be
able to peer into your heart.
One company claims it can equip drones with facial recognition technology that
lets them build a 3-D model of a face based on a 2-D image, which would then
allow the drone to ID someone, even in a crowd.
They also say that if they can get a close enough look, they can tell twins
apart and reveal not only individuals’
identity but their social networks.
The Army also wants to identify potentially hostile behavior and intent, in
order to uncover clandestine foes. Charles River Analytics is using its Army
cash to build a so-called ‘Adversary Behavior Acquisition, Collection,
Understanding, and Summarization (ABACUS)’ tool. The system would integrate
data from informants’ tips, drone footage, and captured phone calls. Then it
would apply ‘a human behavior modeling and simulation engine’ that would spit
out ‘intent-based threat assessments of individuals and groups.’ In other
words: This software could potentially find out which people are most likely to
harbor ill will toward the U.S. military or its objectives. Feeling nervous
We’re getting into truly Orwellian
levels of surveillance that makes one ask, "just what in the hell are we
so afraid of that we need to be monitored at all times?" We know that,
study after study indicates we ARE NOT under a dangerous threat from
terrorists, either from abroad or from
within.We know that the chances of being killed by a terrorist are a
fraction of the chance that you’ll
be hit by lightning.
Yet, here we are, rationalizing and legitimizing MASSIVE surveillance
apparatuses that leave our privacy, and the Constitution, in tatters. What is
the bigger threat here? A government, and in fact, a PRIVACY drone industry
that can watch us anywhere, at all times, and even facially recognize us, for
who knows what purposes (i.e. stifle dissent)….or, can we, as brave Americans
simply take the TINY TINY risk that living in a world in which we’re not constantly watched is acceptable demands? I hate to
repeat myself so much on this blog, but, I also know how many readers are first
time readers, so let me break this privacy versus security paradox down again.
In the final analysis, if we include in our definition of "safe" the
concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and corporate
profiteering off fear peddling, I would argue these machines make us less
secure, not more. So let’s scrap the meme that we should live in fear and that
our constitutional rights must be sacrificed to address a threat the fraction
of that posed by lightning, salmonella, and the health insurance industry.
The trend line is all too clear. More concerning than any single threat posed
by any single technology ‘ including drone surveillance ‘ is this larger
pattern indicating that privacy as both a right and an idea is under siege. The
consequences of such a loss would be profound.
This false dichotomy between security and privacy must be directly confronted.
As security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier once wrote, "If you set up
the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy —
especially if you scare them first. But it’s
still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty
requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin
Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a
little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It’s also true that those who would give up privacy
for security are likely to end up with neither.’
And let me sum this all up, once again, as I often do here.
Whether its the knowledge that everything we do on the internet is followed and
stored, that we can be wiretapped for no reason and without a warrant or
probable cause, that smart grid systems monitor our daily in home habits and
actions, that our emails can be intercepted, that our naked bodies must be
viewed at airports and stored, that our book purchases can be accessed
(particularly if Google gets its way and everything goes electronic), that
street corner cameras are watching our every move (and perhaps drones too), and
that RFID tags and GPS technology allow for the tracking of clothes, cars, and
phones (and the list goes on)…what is certain is privacy itself is on life
support in this country…and without privacy there is no freedom. I also fear
how such a surveillance society stifles dissent and discourages grassroots political/social
activism that challenges government and corporate power…something that we
desperately need more of in this country, not less.
But perhaps the GREAT Jim Hightower frames this attack on privacy the best when
he writes, "Look, up in the sky! Neither a bird nor Superman, the next
must-have toy for assorted police agencies is the unmanned aerial vehicle,
better known as drones. Yes, the same miniaturized aircraft that lets the
military wage war with a remote-controlled, error-prone death machine is headed
to your sky, if the authorities have their way. Already, Homeland Security
officials have deployed one to a Texas sheriff’s
office to demonstrate its crime-fighting efficacy, and federal aviation
officials are presently proposing new airspace rules to help eager departments
throughout the country get their drones.
But airspace problems are nothing compared to the as-yet-unaddressed Fourth
Amendment problems that come with putting cheap, flying-surveillance cameras in
the air. As usual, this techno-whiz gadget is being rationalized as nothing
more than an enhanced eye on crime. But the drone doesn’t
just monitor a particular person or criminal activity, it can continuously spy
on an entire city, with no warrant to restrict its inevitable invasion of
innocent people’s privacy. Drones
will collect video images of identifiable people. Who will see that
information? How will it be used? Will it be retained? By its nature, this is
an invasive, all-encompassing spy eye that will tempt authorities to go on
fishing expeditions. The biggest question is the one that is not even being
asked: Who will watch the watchers?.
We would do well to – sooner rather than later – to recognize the inherent and
fundamental value that privacy provides ANY claimed democracy. Without one
there can not be the other.