The technology used for air traffic control is changing and so is the civilian aviation landscape. Last month,
Congress approved a plan that would phase out radar as the means of tracking planes and shifted to a system using GPS-satellite tracking.
Under this plan, the FAA would be required to phase in unmanned drone flights in currently-restricted U.S. airspace. At the present time, the United States military maintains an arsenal of roughly 7,500 remote-controlled drones. With the end of combat operations in Iraq and the scale-back of combat operations in Afghanistan, there will be more drones back in the United States. Under current FAA regulations, remote-controlled drones are not allowed in U.S. airspace without special permission. This restriction is in place because the technology is not compatible with manned aircraft. The FAA is unsure of how the unmanned aircraft will interact with manned aircraft in U.S. cities. To test how to integrate the drone force into the current civilian airspace, the FAA must establish a testing ground by June 30th of this year. The manufacturers of the drone fleet will have to create technology that allows the drones to sense they are flying too close to commercial or other manned aircraft and react accordingly. The FAA has yet to create guidelines as to how the technology needs to be developed and what the technology must contain. Furthermore, there are broader questions as to how military technology used on the battlefield will be implemented back on the home front.
Several organizations have come out against the creation and implementation of these new policies by the FAA. Groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have petitioned the FAA to ensure that the privacy rights of citizens are included in the analysis of allowing drones to be used domestically. The group warns in their petition that drones can easily intrude on the privacy of everyday people, and that this intrusion is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The ACLU’s petition states that these drones can “track up to 65 different targets across a distance of 65 square miles.” In addition, in the near future, these cameras may soon include facial recognition technology that would make it possible to remotely identify individuals at parks, schools, and political gatherings.” The petition further urges that drones offer the user the ability to survey an area undetected by persons below. The drones can provide constant surveillance that previous technology could not sustain. Additionally, the petition argues that once facial recognition software is available for use on the drones, the FBI and other monitoring agencies could use that same technology against political dissidents. This use would, according to the ACLU, violate the would-be dissident’s First Amendment rights. The petition goes on to urge the FAA to evaluate the available options and conduct a study balancing the public and private interests in drone usage.
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, “that despite a willingness on the part of Americans to see the use of drones by the military in overseas situations, 52% oppose the use of surveillance drones by private entities, police agencies, and government agencies inside the US. Just 30% said they were in favor of the use of drones in the US.” Jay Stanley, of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says, “the FAA should be rightly concerned about ‘the safety effects of filling our skies with flying robots.’” The concerns of these groups can be summed up in an additional quote by Stanley where he stated, “Congress — and to the extent possible, the FAA — need to impose some rules (such as those we proposed in our report) to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this technology will otherwise lead to. We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move.’”
Are the fears of the ACLU and other civil rights and watchdog groups well-founded? Will law enforcement in the United States be able to capitalize on this drone technology to decrease the amount of privacy we as Americans enjoy? In a world filled with security cameras and electronic monitoring of our activities such as credit card purchases, how much further can (should) the government go? The ACLU cites facial recognition software as a concern on these drones if used for domestic surveillance. This technology has already been used at large events such as the Super Bowl (since 2001) to target suspected terrorists in the crowd. While it is apparently still in the development stages for use on aircraft, the fact of the matter is that we as Americans already subject ourselves to the use of this technology in some areas of our lives already. Additionally, police helicopters already have the technology to track individuals using infrared sensors. In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to get away from a police helicopter that is equipped with the most up-to-date technology.
Technological developments generally make their way from military use to civilian use, just look to cell phone technology and sport utility vehicles. Why aren’t drones just the next step of technology in a long stream of innovations that have traveled through the military to civilian use cycle? While the ACLU uses a “parade-of-horribles” for their scenario, it does make a valid point. If the police already have the technology to pursue criminals with infrared from a helicopter, why do the police need to be able to track people up to over 65 square miles? If the FAA program is successful in implementing the use of drones, strict limits will have to be put in place. Battlefield technology does not need to be implemented in whole on the home front. There should be certain exceptions allowed for entities such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI; however, these exceptions should have to go through the highest levels of authority to be approved.
The FAA has the opportunity to upgrade our air traffic systems to the highest level. The future of shipping could one day be changed because some of these drones can carry such large payloads. While helicopter pilots will not be replaced, there could be fewer deaths from helicopter crashes. While few and far between when compared to the number of helicopters flying every day, there are frequent helicopter and even small aircraft crashes in the United States. If a news crew needs to get a shot of morning traffic, no longer will a helicopter have to take the camera man to the scene. A drone could take off, circle the city, and relay the images of the interstate back to the station to be broadcast. The possibilities for new innovative uses are endless; however, the possibilities for government use against the people are endless, as well, and must be closely monitored to ensure that our right to privacy is not infringed upon by a piece of technology that the eye cannot even see.
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