Droning on

Charlottesville City Council’s anti-drone resolution gives experts time to resolve legal, ethical questions

Charlottesville City Council Monday evening approved a resolution, 3-2, against unmanned police spy drones. Charlottesville is the first city in the U.S. to pass an anti-drone ordinance.

The resolution, penned largely by the Rutherford Institute, a local civil-liberties advocacy group, placed a two-year moratorium on the use of police and government drones within city limits. It also urged the General Assembly to pass regulations limiting drone power. Such regulations include keeping weapons such as tasers and tear gas off drones and prohibiting information collected by drones from being used in court.

Council didn’t have to wait long. Virginia lawmakers Tuesday approved a two-year stay on the use of drones by police and government agencies in the Commonwealth. The legislation glided by as smoothly as the aircraft it sought to ban, passing 83-16 in the House of Delegates and 36-2 in the Virginia Senate.

Privacy concerns frequently emerge hand in hand with new technologies. Online privacy, for example, has become a major anxiety for many, as the title of one of the University’s computer science course offerings, “Defense against the Dark Arts,” suggests. Passwords only do so much to protect the vast quantities of information — birthdates, credit card numbers, photos — we store online. Fears about digital privacy, however, generally arise from the possibility of one or more private actors, like a hacker, harming us using online tools. Drones steer the debate in a different direction. Critics of drones don’t fear intrusions from other private actors. Instead, they fear abuse of power and an invasion of privacy on the part of government and law-enforcement agencies. Digital-privacy concerns stem from a fear of online anarchy. Unease about drones derives from a fear of fascism.

Some may accuse Council of acting prematurely. But Charlottesville is not responding to a fanciful, nonexistent threat. Though most people associate drones with overseas counterterrorism activity, as many as 30,000 drones may be flying in U.S. airspace by the decade’s end, according to Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has issued more than 300 drone licenses to government agencies across the U.S., and more are on the way.

Drones bring clear benefits. They would help police with search-and-rescue missions, and they provide a safe way to monitor dangerous criminal situations. But before domestic drones evolve into a massive industry, citizens’ privacy concerns must be addressed. Charlottesville’s resolution does not have much bite to it, but it sends a message to state and federal lawmakers: that we need more time to decide how best to integrate drones into our political and legal structures.

It is unclear whether Fourth Amendment protections, which guard against unreasonable search and seizure, apply to drones. A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that such protections do not apply to manned airplanes collecting information in public airspace. Whether this ruling extends to unmanned aircrafts is a question that needs to be resolved before we allow scores of drones in domestic airspace. The two-year moratorium on drones passed by Council and the General Assembly will give military and legal experts time to answer certain ethical and legal questions about how domestic drones might affect privacy.

Charlottesville was right to move against drones early. We hope other city governments follow suit.


Published February 7, 2013 in Opinion









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