Taking Drones Seriously

Dragonfly X-6 drone

If you have concern about the potential abuse by law enforcement agencies from the use of unmanned drone aircraft, there must be something kooky about you, according to Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy.

“[F]olks are worried that Mayor Bob Cluck wants to fly them overhead for random begonia inspections.” Kennedy snidely continued, “For triggering this sudden panic about ordinary police surveillance, we can thank former Texan Rand Paul, who took to the U.S. Senate floor for half a day last week to frighten C-SPAN2’s mostly older viewers about Evil Robot Spy Planes.” This is downright misleading. Sen. Paul’s filibuster highlighted the fact that the Obama administration had refused to disavow the rational that Americans not engaged in combat could be unilaterally targeted without due process for assassination.

As much as Kennedy would like to marginalize concerns about the use of drone aircraft, venerated organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have questioned the use of domestic drones. Local congressional Republican Joe Barton, who is as establishment as anyone in Washington, co-wrote a letter [PDF] to the FAA expressing concern about privacy that drones endanger. The latest Defense Authorization Bill calls for domestic drones to operate “freely and routinely,” so it stands to reason why people would express their opposition before the constitutionally dubious Department of Homeland Security begins offering grants to law enforcement agencies that make drones even more commonplace.

If police departments are routinely using drones in the their duties, it’s reasonable to imagine that the scope of those duties would creep. Some police departments have expressed interest in using less-lethal armaments like rubber bullets and tear gas. Manufacturers are in the design stage to construct drones the size of hummingbirds. Because of their maneuverability and discreteness, drones can impinge on the privacy that most people reasonably expect, making people subject to routine aerial surveillance that would drastically undermine their quality of community engagement.

In a free society, the desire for — or at least apathy with — a surveillance culture that scrutinizes our every move and public sentiment should be what we consider out of step. But that is exactly the future that people who desire social control are seeking. They take government to be an object to be yielded to, and ordinary folks are the ones to be viewed with suspicion.