Despite their infamous history in Afghanistan and Iraq, aerial drones are swiftly hovering away from the battlefield and into the skies above cities and towns around the world. The United States government can't seem to put them there fast enough: in February, Congress passed a bill mandating clearance for domestic drone use, and a new Homeland Security program is similarly moving to "facilitate and accelerate the adoption" of drones by police.
With pertinent details on domestic drone use still missing after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Transportation, and around 60 public and private entities (including roughly two dozen local police departments) now authorized for drone flight by the FAA, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is understandably wary. They're calling on average citizens to keep tabs on local drone use in hopes that it will help address some unanswered questions, like how many drones are being flown, and how the people flying them intend to use them.
"Local towns will soon grapple over the privacy dangers drones will create."
EFF worries these uses could wind up being a lot more nefarious than arresting cow thieves. In addition to being outfitted with high-res gigapixel cameras capable of surveilling large areas and tracking multiple individuals with pinpoint accuracy, drones can also be outfitted with ways to snoop on phone calls and other electronic communications. A project last year at the Las Vegas hacker conference Defcon unveiled a drone capable of breaking into protected WiFi networks and intercepting text messages. Civil rights advocates worry that police drones might also be equipped with "non-lethal" weapons such as tear gas canisters, bean bag guns, and tasers.
"Given Congress’ inaction on privacy issues, and the fact that the FAA has never regulated privacy issues, we believe activism at the local level is the best way to stop drone surveillance," writes EFF. The organization is encouraging citizens to contact their local police departments and fill out a Q&A form on their website to help track how individual departments are using or plan on using drones. "Once we've collected the data, we will release it and tell you how you can contact your local municipal government to demand that they ban law enforcement drones or install robust privacy safeguards that will protect citizens from unwanted — and unconstitutional — surveillance."