WASHINGTON -- The rapidly expanding domestic drone industry is effectively unregulated when it comes to privacy protections but not for lack of trying. Congress has passed few laws regulating drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, but two clear sides emerged: a handful of lawmakers and civil liberties groups pushing for privacy restrictions are stacked against a drone caucus with dozens of House members and support from the UAV industry.
The Obama administration regularly deploys armed drones for overseas military strikes, and unarmed models of the same Predator drones are used to patrol U.S. borders.
But smaller models are now being used domestically for search-and-rescue missions, detecting forest fires, some law enforcement efforts and scientific research. Supporters tout these and other benefits, but many civil libertarians cringe at the thought of government-controlled eyes in the sky.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued 300 special permits to drone operators and is drafting safety rules that would allow more drones in U.S. airspace by 2015, as required by the FAA reauthorization law Congress approved last year.
An estimated 30,000 drones could fill American skies by 2020, and experts agree the industry is on the verge of unprecedented domestic growth. It could develop into an $89 billion industry and create thousands of jobs within a decade, according to a report by the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.
Some privacy advocates fear that the government could use drones for unlawful surveillance on U.S. soil. The FAA has not looked much into privacy issues the agency has said it is ill-equipped to do so and no current laws require federal agencies to consider privacy while regulating drones.
A few members of Congress want to fill the void. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act in February. The bill would ban the government and law enforcement agencies from using drones to conduct surveillance on individuals or their property without obtaining a warrant, and evidence gathered without a court order would be impermissible at trials. There are exceptions for emergencies, when consent is given and when the drone is within 25 miles of the U.S. border, where many are already stationed.
Another key provision explicitly bans outfitting domestic drones with firearms or other lethal weapons. There is also a built-in mechanism for Justice Department oversight.
Legitimate uses by government and private citizens do occur, but a nosy neighbor or a Big Brother government does not have the right to look into a window without legitimate cause or, in the case of the government, probable cause, Poe said on the House floor.
Privacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have supported these efforts, which they say are overdue. But there is strong opposition from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone lobby, which claims the bills are introduced under the guise of privacy and are designed instead to debilitate their market. It spent $60,000 lobbying against the Poe bill in 2012.
As U.S. involvement in overseas wars wind down, defense and aerospace corporations are shifting focus to domestic markets. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, whose influence with Congress is established because of their role as defense contractors, are among the companies that comprise the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.