In Brief
General Atomics is working to get the FAA to change rules making it easier for unmanned surveillance drones to operate in American airspace. Privacy rights activists see much danger in the expansion of such programs.

Policing the Skies

Technological advancements have a tendency to further democratize society. At the advent of computers, no regular citizen could ever dream of holding that power in their homes, let alone in the palm of their hands, as is possible now. However, not all technological advancement is in the service of benevolence, at least depending on each individual’s point of view.

General Atomics is a defense contractor famous for their development of the unmanned Reaper drones in use in theaters of war. Currently, they are lobbying the FAA to loosen airspace restrictions to allow for their drones to be used in US airspace. One goal for the company is to use their technology to replace police helicopters. After the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virgina, which, in addition to the death of civilian Heath Heyer, saw the death of two state troopers monitoring the unrest caused by white supremacist rallies in the city, the call to replace these helicopters with unmanned technology may have never been more apparent.

Image source: General Atomics
Image source: General Atomics

Surveillance State

Aside from stringent FAA rules, proponents of domestic surveillance drones also have to contest with privacy advocates. Optics technology is advancing rapidly and these drones have the possibility of being outfitted with face recognition technology. “There is a lot of potential for privacy abuse if a surveillance device can identify a human at five kilometers away,” Julia Horwitz, consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Washington Post in an interview. And these fears may not be unfounded as one 1989 Supreme Court case ruled that helicopters flying over private property are not violating any Constitutional rights.

According to Jeramie D. Scott, the director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, “Drones make indiscriminate and persistent aerial surveillance feasible and can easily be equipped with technologies like facial recognition. Without proper restrictions, drone surveillance will become the norm of public space, undermine our constitutional rights and chill First Amendment activities.”

Science-fiction has long warned its fans of the dangers of surveillance and police states. And, while we never may reach the extremes of such fare as 1984 or The Hunger Games, smart regulations can allow for technology to help law enforcement keep us safe, while also protecting the privacy and other rights of everyday, law-abiding citizens.