Drones in America: Air Force Testing Drones in North Carolina for Use on Americans


The United States Air Force announced last week that starting this fall, it will be using military sites in North Dakota as “practice ranges” for drones. This announcement follows the successful testing, earlier this month, of the new “sense and avoid” technology, which will help prevent collisions when unmanned systems share airspace with other vehicles. We should all be glad to learn that the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, which we have used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen) are now safe enough for use in American airspace. What is troubling, however, is what this might mean for privacy and for the rights of suspected criminals, both American and foreign. The domestic use of drones for security and intelligence purposes could make America a very different place.

The incentives for expanding the domestic use of UAVs are clear. As Jay Stanley wrote in the ACLU’s Free Future blog, “There’s a quantum leap in surveillance when we go from scattered cameras controlled by different entities, to a unified and centralized system able to persistently monitor an individual across a city in real time.” This superior surveillance could be used to track illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and to locate dangerous suspects without putting law enforcement officials at risk.

The challenge, however, is in limiting the collection and distribution of private information. Drones have a tendency to “inadvertently” collect information, which is then stored for up to 90 days. The executive branch has technically placed limitations on what the Pentagon can share with state and local law enforcement agencies, but they are vague and, frankly, not very limiting. A spokesperson from the Air Force said, “A court order or warrant is not required in all circumstances.”

Across the pond, the European Commission is also exploring the potential for using UAV’s in law enforcement. Wired reports that the Commission is entertaining a proposal to use drones to detect illegal immigration across the Mediterranean Sea. The proposal states that drone pictures “will as a general rule not involve personal data,” but, as in the American case, there is undoubtedly some room for error.

It seems that the age of drone surveillance may be unavoidable. As we continue to develop more advanced and intrusive technologies, however, we must confront the legal challenges of increasing security while protecting individual rights. Stricter measures are needed to protect against all-inclusive surveillance, searches without warrants, and discriminatory practices. Our lawmakers should keep in mind that more information is not always better and draw a firm line in the sand to protect individual freedoms.