The ACLU has been prominently featured in recent news coverage of the secret use of drones to kill alleged terrorists abroad. As troubling as this international tactic may be, we need to be aware that there are powerful business interests working to bring drones in force to American skies as well.

March 18, 2013

The Federal Aviation Administration is predicting that there could be as many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles over domestic skies by the end of the decade.

The drones of the not-too-distant future may be far different from the toy-like vehicles a handful of police departments around the country are currently considering.

The public is understandably nervous over drones’ game-changing implications for privacy and generalized surveillance by the government.

No Longer Futuristic Fantasy

What was once the stuff of science fiction is becoming big business. Drones have their own trade group, the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International, which includes some of the nation’s leading aerospace companies. And Congress now has “drone caucuses” in both the Senate and House.

We can bet that drones will become more powerful and less expensive. Advances in artificial intelligence will enhance their ability to carry out increasingly invasive surveillance. We can expect drones that will carry high-power zoom lenses, employ thermal imaging, and use radar to penetrate the walls of homes and businesses. With facial recognition software, they will be able to recognize and track individuals.

Data Storage and Sharing Concerns

And if data captured by drones is not immediately deleted, it could become a massive trove of video, audio, and other data. Although cameras have proliferated in our society, drones are different both because of their surveillance capabilities and the fact that it is the government doing the recording.

In February, legislators introduced three bills (SF 276, HF 410, and HF 427) designed to allow drones only for certain activities and certain reasons. Other similar bills are being considered right now in at least 11 states. It is encouraging that in places like Nebraska, Virginia and Florida, such bills have received enthusiastic, bipartisan support. And a massive backlash in Seattle recently compelled the mayor to ground the drones already purchased by local police. They are going to be returned to the vendor.

In a democratic society, people should be able to go about their daily activities without their movements, activities, and associations being recorded and tracked by the government without a warrant. Americans do not want to live in a surveillance society.

--Ben Stone, ACLU of Iowa Executive Director March 18, 2013