The Spectacle Blog

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird? It’s a Plane? It’s a… Drone!?

By on 4.12.12 | 1:45PM

Two months ago, the president signed into law the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

Now the countdown is on.

The bill gave the FAA 90 days (a mere thirty days, hence) to allow police and first responders to fly small drones over domestic airspace. Within the next four years, the federal agency is charged with authorizing and certifying the flight assorted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- quite literally -- over our heads. By the FAA's own estimates, by 2020, some 30,000 drones, of various shapes and sizes, could be patrolling America from above.

In the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko wrote the following, regarding the potential militarization of US airspace:

As of October, the [FAA] had reportedly issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types. The FAA has refused to say who received the clearances, but it was estimated over a year ago that 35 percent were held by the Pentagon, 11 percent by NASA, and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And it's growing. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operates eight Predator drones. Under pressure from the congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus — yes, there's already a drone lobby, with 50 members — two additional Predators were sent to Texas in the fall…

Even now that drones are becoming faster, cheaper and more reliable, it's difficult to imagine unmanned aircraft similar to those used to strike the Taliban will soon be flying our friendly skies. For good reason…

While Predator "decapitation strikes" in the AF/PAK -- or the Hellfire death sentence issued Anwar al Alwaki -- occupy top-fold ink, the vast majority of drone flight-time is spent gathering intelligence, performing surveillance and carrying out reconnaissance. Military jargon pegs this capacity "ISR" -- shorthand for missions that are too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for manned aircraft. Fair enough. We're not facing air-to-ground precision weaponry deployed on the home-front. But who wants to live in a surveillance state?

Before you channel your inner-Orwell and cast hasty allusion to the "the Party's" ability to monitor every waking moment of its subjects' lives -- I should be clear that this signed legislation remains a work in progress. In his fascinating "Primer on Domestic Drones" over at Forbes, Prof. Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine Law School assures "robust public debate" in the formulation of drone diktats.  However, civil liberty organizations and privacy groups remain seriously concerned their hot-buttons were largely ignored during Senate floor debate. Did our elected representatives ignore the eminent Justice Louis Brandeis confirmation of "the right most valued by all civilized men -- the right to be let alone?"

Well, it's too soon to say.

However, Ryan Calo -- director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University -- warns:

As privacy law stands today, you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage […] I don't think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.

In other words, when it comes to government surveillance, this domestic drones situation gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "heads up."

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