Thanks to a law passed without much public debate in March, the FAA must allow law enforcement agencies to operate small drones (i.e., less than 4.4 pounds) at altitudes of less than 400 feet. “The demand is huge,” says Catherine Crump, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, says there are nearly 19,000 law enforcement entities in the United States, of which only 300 now have aerial surveillance capacities.
“Those departments have helicopters which cost about $1,500 an hour to operate,” Toscano says. “You can fly these drones for maybe less than $50 hour. A lot of smaller departments can now afford this technology.”
It is easy to imagine the benefits of having an eye in the sky. “You don’t have to call off a search for a missing person because of darkness or inclement weather,” Toscano says. Using airborne sensors, a drone could pinpoint the most dangerous areas of a fire for firefighters on the ground.
The downside is obvious too. Drones are mostly known for their use in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the controversial targeted killing of overseas U.S. citizens allegedly involved in terrorism. The introduction of surveillance drones into U.S. airspace signals an unprecedented conflation of homeland security, counterterrorism and domestic law enforcement, a combination that is galvanizing civil society activists.
Technology developed for attacking armed enemies abroad is being repurposed for enforcing the law at home — without any new safeguards for privacy and civil liberties. Domestic drones can engage in constant surveillance from the sky, which the Supreme Court has ruled does not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable search. Photographs of political demonstrators could be fed into facial recognition software on a scale previously unimaginable. Drones can also be weaponized with tear gas or tasers for remote crowd control. Michael Buscher, president of Vanguard Defense Industries, a drone manufacturer in Texas, told the Daily that police drones could have “rubber buckshot better available for large crowd dispersal.”
FULL ARTICLE: The drones are coming — to America – Privacy – Salon.com.