Back to News & Commentary

Domestic Drones: Big Brother's Prying Eyes in the Sky

Share This Page
February 21, 2012

“As technology advances, so does the government’s surveillance powers. If we want to protect our privacy rights, the exercise of this power has to be subject to limits,” writes ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer in The New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion about the use of drones domestically, and whether they pose a threat to privacy.

As a recent report we issued makes clear, the ACLU believes it is crucial that we adopt clear rules for the use of drones to conduct domestic surveillance. Jaffer writes,

The available technology is already incredibly powerful. A surveillance drone can already be used to track a person as she travels from, say, her house to her doctor’s office to her place of worship to her school. Within a few years, it may be perfectly feasible, economically and technologically, for a local police department to use unmanned drones to collect the identities of those who attend political rallies…

It’s not that the domestic use of surveillance drones should be categorically prohibited…

But it’s crucial that we place clear limits on the use of drones to collect information about citizens. Law enforcement agencies should generally be prohibited from using surveillance drones except to monitor those who are reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal activity. When surveillance will be particularly intrusive – for example, if it will be prolonged, or if it will include peering through a window – the surveillance should be based on a warrant and probable cause. And when the government collects information incidentally about individuals who aren’t suspected of criminal activity, or when criminal suspects turn out to be innocent, the information the government has collected should be discarded.

Drones will no doubt prove to have many good uses, but we need to adopt some rules to protect privacy.”

This issue is getting more attention now that Congress has ordered the FAA to speed up its plans to change airspace rules to make it much easier for police nationwide to use domestic drones. Unfortunately the new law, sign by President Obama this month, does not address privacy concerns at all. A New York Times article from this past weekend on the prospect of expanding drone use generated more than 450 comments. Fox News ran a story on the topic featuring the ACLU’s Jay Stanley (watch here), and an NBC Nightly News story (watch here) included a warning from ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke, who cautioned that drones are very easy to misuse, and provide a convenient way for police to go on “fishing expeditions” — which is exactly why rules need to be set before drones are standard equipment for police departments large and small nationwide.

Learn more about surveillance: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.