—The Denver Post—
Virginia lawmakers last week approved a two-year moratorium on the government use of drones. The only exceptions, The Washington Post reported, will be "in emergencies, or to search for missing children or seniors."
This dramatic measure was pushed by a coalition of right and left, and overwhelmingly passed in both legislative chambers.
We're not sure such a sweeping moratorium is a good idea. Still, we do support the idea of federal, state and local governments examining the privacy implications of the wholesale adoption of unmanned aerial drones by law enforcement, as the devices migrate from military to civilian use. There should be clear limits on the use of drones so that individual rights are protected.
As Colleen O'Connor reported in last Sunday's Denver Post, the debate over drones is alive in Colorado, too, where some police departments, such as the Mesa County Sheriff's Office, are already employing them for search and rescue and investigations. Meanwhile, other police departments, including Denver's, are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the technology.
We don't see anything sinister with drones themselves. Indeed, as Time magazine's Lev Grossman argues, drones may be, "along with smart phones and 3-D printing, one of a handful of genuinely transformative technologies to emerge in the past 10 years."
And not only for police. As Grossman explains, "Farmers will use them to watch their fields. Builders will use them to survey construction sites. Hollywood will use them to make movies. Hobbyists will use them just because they feel like it."
Drones could also take air samples, monitor sites of potential avalanches and report on the spread of forest fires, among many other uses.
A year ago, President Obama ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to fast-track requests to use drones and figure out how they could be accommodated in U.S. airspace.
But despite drones' undeniable benefits, they have serious potential drawbacks, too. Drones could be used by governments (and nosy individuals) to monitor people who have no idea they are being watched — not only when they're on their own property but even within their homes.
"If we don't fix the privacy problems for civil liberties, we'll never realize the benefits from drones," Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in robotics and privacy, told O'Connor. "Folks will be afraid and object."
At the very least, a warrant should be required before any such surveillance is undertaken.
The Rutherford Institute, a populist civil liberties outfit in Virginia, takes the view that model drone legislation should bar police from outfitting drones with devices such as Tasers and tear gas, and bar any information "obtained by the domestic use of any unmanned aircraft by federal agencies" from use as evidence in federal court.
That strikes us as a step too far. Still, at least the institute is thinking seriously about civil liberties and raising the alarm over how privacy law has fallen behind technology. It's time to bring that law into the 21st century, in line with new technology.