Congress gets mixed advice on regulating drones

May 17, 2013 by Henry C. Jackson

(AP)—The growing use of unmanned surveillance "eyes in the sky" aircraft raises a thicket of privacy concerns, but the U.S. Congress is getting mixed advice on what, if anything, to do about it.

A future with domestic drones may be inevitable. While civilian drone use is currently limited to government agencies and some public universities, a law passed by Congress last year requires the to allow widespread drone flights in the U.S. by 2015. According to FAA estimates, as many as 7,500 civilian drones could be in use within five years.

"Technology is great—as long as it's used the right and proper way," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican said at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Friday on the issues surrounding drones—which can be as small as a bird and as large as a plane.

Congress isn't alone in seeking to address the issues: Since January, drone-related legislation has been introduced in more than 30 states, largely in response to privacy concerns.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican, said it was important for new standards to address the associated with use of drones. With Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, and Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican, he is sponsoring legislation that would codify due process protections for Americans in cases involving drones and make flying armed drones in the U.S. sky illegal.

"Every advancement in crime fighting technology, from wiretaps to DNA, has resulted in courts carving out the Constitutional limits within which the police operate," Sensenbrenner said.

The subcommittee heard from experts who were divided on what actions Congress should take to address the new technology. But the four witnesses all agreed that drones raised new, often unprecedented questions about domestic surveillance.

"Current law has yet to catch up to this new technology," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the .

Calabrese said he supported immediate regulation of the drone industry and said his biggest concern was the overuse of drones by police and government officials for surveillance. But Calabrese said he doesn't want to hinder the growth of drones with the power to do good, including helping find missing persons, assisting firefighters and addressing other emergencies.

Tracey Maclin, a professor with the Boston University School of Law, said the issues raised by drones haven't been addressed by courts before because the technology goes beyond what humans had been capable of through aerial surveillance.

Past court rulings, "were premised on naked-eye observations—simple visual observations from a public place," he said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat, said he wanted to know when drone technology will advance to the point where Congress will have to act on the issue. He said he was concerned about the effect on privacy.

"At what point do you think it's going to get to a point where we have to say what a reasonable expectation of privacy is?" Richmond said.

Republicans expressed similar concerns.

"It seems to me that Congress needs to set the standard, rather than wait and let the courts set the standard," Poe said.

Some experts urged caution.

Gregory McNeal, an associate law professor at Pepperdine University, said writing laws to cover drones will be difficult because the technology continues to improve and Congress could think it's addressing key issues, only to have new ones emerge.

He compared drones to the privacy concerns raised by development of the Internet in the 1990s. Regulating then, he said, could have stymied the rapid growth of the Internet and wouldn't have addressed today's Internet privacy issues.

If Congress feels compelled to act, McNeal said, it should think in terms broader than a "drone policy" and set standards for surveillance or realistic expectations of privacy. "A technology-centered approach to privacy is the wrong approach," he said.

But the ACLU's Calabrese said should work quickly.

"This can't be adequately addressed by existing law," he said. "Manned aircraft are expensive to purchase. ' low cost and flexibility erode that natural limit. They can appear in windows, all for much less than the cost of a plane or a helicopter."

Explore further: Co-robots team up with humans

4 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Drones will require new privacy laws, Senate told (Update)

Mar 20, 2013

Privacy laws urgently need to be updated to protect the public from information-gathering by the thousands of civilian drones expected to be flying in U.S. skies in the next decade or so, legal experts told a Senate panel ...

Protect privacy from drones at home, lawmakers say

Jul 19, 2012

Before thousands of civilian drones begin flying in U.S. skies, Congress should take steps to protect the public's privacy and prevent terrorists from hacking or jamming signals that control the aircraft, lawmakers said Thursday.

US Homeland Security sued for drone details

Oct 31, 2012

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said Wednesday it has sued the US Department of Homeland Security to obtain details about Predator drones on loan to domestic police departments.

Friend or foe? Civilian drones stir debate

Mar 18, 2013

Drones: A flying technological marvel that could save lives or a sinister robot spy which edges the United States ever closer towards becoming a surveillance society?

Recommended for you

Firmer footing for robots with smart walking sticks

Nov 25, 2014

Anyone who has ever watched a humanoid robot move around in the real world—an "unstructured environment," in research parlance—knows how hard it is for a machine to plan complex movements, balance on ...

Knightscope K5 on security patrol roams campus

Nov 24, 2014

A Mountain View, California-based company called Knightscope designs and builds 5-feet, 300-pound security guards called K5, but anyone scanning last week's headlines has already heard about them, with the ...

Robots take over inspection of ballast tanks on ships

Nov 24, 2014

A new robot for inspecting ballast water tanks on board ships is being developed by a Dutch-German partnership including the University of Twente. The robot is able to move independently along rails built ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

xeb
1 / 5 (1) May 17, 2013
"for anti-drone businessmen, the time to invent, innovate, patent and sell is now."
http://www.washin...page=all
rwinners
1 / 5 (1) May 18, 2013
Well, Congress could just announce 'open season'.
rwinners
1 / 5 (1) May 18, 2013
I mean it. Drones and radio controlled aircraft have been around for quite a while. When will we see our first mini-anti-defense missile? I'll be the first to buy a battery!

well... probably not the first......

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.