While the debate continues over whether President Barack Obama has the legal right to kill American citizens abroad with drones, the drones may be closer to flying over Florida’s skies than anyone thinks.
I am talking about the civilian version of the drones, also known as “unmanned aerial systems.” They are pilotless aircraft of various sizes controlled remotely by ground-based operators, although sometimes they fly based on a pre-programmed route.
As decreed by Congress a year ago, by Sept. 30, 2015, unmanned civilian drones must be granted access to U.S. airspace that is currently reserved for piloted aircraft.
There is a lot of money — literally, billions of dollars — to be made by the drone manufacturers if they can start selling their pilotless aircraft to police departments and private users. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 10,000 civilian drones will be in use in the U.S. within five years — and 30,000 by 2030.
Besides the inherent dangers of personal injury and property damage posed by civilian drones buzzing through the skies, everyone’s personal privacy is also at risk. The drones can fly over a person’s home taking still, moving and infrared pictures (including the use of facial recognition software), and can record audio for the use of their operators.
A few days ago, Texas Congressman Ted Poe, R-Houston, introduced the “Preserving American Privacy Act”, a bill that would allow surveillance of individuals or their property by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies only with a search warrant. The proposed law also would ban the use of armed drones in U.S. airspace.
Poe’s proposed legislation would also apply to privately operated drones. It would make it unlawful for a private drone to capture with a visual or auditory “enhancing device,” such as a telephoto lens or parabolic microphone, an individual’s “personal or familial activity.”
Legislation recently introduced in Tallahassee by Florida Republican State Sen. Joe Negron of Palm City, the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” would prohibit law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence “or other information” without a search warrant.
Negron’s bill provides an exception if there is credible intelligence that there is a high risk of a terrorist attack. It also would allow law enforcement to use a drone without a warrant if there is reasonable suspicion that immediate action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, the escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.
The Negron bill does not, however, restrict the use of drones for commercial, private, or research purposes, for information gathering in the scientific, commercial, or educational sectors, or by the media. That leaves a big gap for privacy abuses by non-government operators.
Unless you are planning to exercise your Second Amendment rights and try to shoot down any drones flying over your house with your double-barreled shotgun, this would be a good time to let your state and federal representatives know how you feel about the use of domestic drones.
Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami.