Domestic Drones

U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. Read the ACLU’s full report on domestic drones here. 

Numerous states are considering (and some have passed) legislation regulating the use of drones. You can see a chart summarizing the developments around the country here. Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to change airspace rules to make it much easier for police nationwide to use domestic drones, but the law does not include badly needed privacy protections. The ACLU recommends the following safeguards:

USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Click here for information on the U.S. government’s use of drones overseas for targeted killings.

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"Drones" vs "UAVs" -- What's Behind A Name?

"Drones" vs "UAVs" -- What's Behind A Name?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:00am

Representatives of the drone industry and other drone boosters often make a point of saying they don’t like to use the word “drones.” When my colleague Catherine Crump and I were writing our drones report in 2011, we talked over what terminology we should use, and decided that since our job was to communicate, we should use the term that people would most clearly and directly understand. That word is “drones.”

Drone proponents would prefer that everyone use the term “UAV,” for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or “UAS,” for Unmanned Aerial System (“system” in order to encompass the entirety of the vehicle that flies, the ground-based controller, and the communications connection that connects the two). These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That’s probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they’ve been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas.

I suppose there is a case to be made that domestic drones are a different thing from overseas combat drones. Certainly, there’s a wide gulf separating a $17 million Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles and a hand-launched hobbyist craft buzzing around somebody’s back yard. But drone proponents themselves would be the first to say that drones are a tool—one that can be used for many different purposes. They can be used for fun, photography, science, surveillance, and yes, raining death upon people with the touch of a button from across the world. Even the overseas military uses of drones vary, including not just targeted killing but also surveillance and logistics.

Putting aside well-founded fears that even domestically we may someday see the deployment of weaponized drones, in the end, the difference between overseas and domestic drones is a difference in how the same tool is used. Regardless of whether you’ve got a Predator, a Reaper, a police craft, or a $150 backyard hobby rotorcraft, that tool is what it is. What it is is a drone.

I can’t touch on this subject without quoting from George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell argued that bland and needlessly complicated language was a political act—a symptom of attempts to cover up

Rapid Improvements in Lidar Technology Could Have Surveillance Implications

Rapid Improvements in Lidar Technology Could Have Surveillance Implications

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:25am

Technology Review has an article out on advances in lidar technology. The article is a reminder of just how many fronts there are where we’re seeing large technological advances with possible implications for surveillance.

Lidar is like radar…

Persistent Aerial Surveillance: Do We Want To Go There, America?

Persistent Aerial Surveillance: Do We Want To Go There, America?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:32am

The Washington Post ran a story Thursday on a technology that I've been very concerned about for a while: persistent aerial surveillance. Specifically, it profiled a company, Persistent Surveillance Solutions, that has been deploying this panoptic…

Amazon and Drones

Amazon and Drones

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 8:04am

Amazon attracted a lot of attention this weekend when, on “60 Minutes,” CEO Jeff Bezos announced a futuristic vision for the company: using drones to make deliveries within 30 minutes to homes in metropolitan areas.

The biggest import of…

The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of State Legislation Passed This Year

The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of State Legislation Passed This Year

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 8:50am

2013 could easily be christened the year of the drone. It was the first full state legislative session after Congress passed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open up domestic airspace much more widely to drones, and it brought…

Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone

Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone

By Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Matthew Harwood, Media Strategist, ACLU at 10:37am

The NSA Isn't the Only Government Agency Exploiting Technology to Make Privacy Obsolete

What the FBI Needs to Tell Americans About Its Use of Drones

What the FBI Needs to Tell Americans About Its Use of Drones

By Catherine Crump, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 3:17pm

You've got to hand it to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): He has become one of the foremost members of Congress fighting for Americans' privacy rights, and has worked doggedly to shed light on how the government is using new technologies to monitor us without…

Police Hunger for Drones May be Growing, but So Are Privacy Concerns

Police Hunger for Drones May be Growing, but So Are Privacy Concerns

By Sandra Fulton, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 3:06pm

The ACLU’s Chris Calabrese testified yesterday before the Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing on the economic benefits and the safety, privacy, and First Amendment implications of unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — which are poised to invade…

Drone Test Site Selections Belie State Anti-Privacy Argument

Drone Test Site Selections Belie State Anti-Privacy Argument

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 1:40pm

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday announced six states, chosen from 25 applicants, that will be test sites for integrating drones into domestic airspace: Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia (the Alaska test…

Experts Discuss Surveillance Society at Domestic Drones Hearing

Experts Discuss Surveillance Society at Domestic Drones Hearing

By Sandra Fulton, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 5:14pm

An important Congressional subcommittee held a hearing today on domestic drone use. Members and witnesses didn't just rehash familiar concerns; they dug deeper to explore how advanced surveillance technology has become, and the real dangers of the…

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