Drones Come Home to Seattle

It is common knowledge that unmanned, remotely controlled aircraft have become invaluable tools for the U.S. military fighting insurgents and other ne’er-do-wells overseas. Like reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, strikes in Pakistan and Yemen frequently make the news. Just a few weeks ago the Los Angeles Times discussed how the Department of Homeland Security would soon be using drones across the Caribbean to help monitor large swaths of the sea for drug traffickers. While such uses seem understandable and safely far away, the worry among many who value their privacy is that the technology is creeping closer and closer to home.


Tracking down those engaged in the drug trade is a frequent and favorite use of drone technology. A recent report in the Huffington Post mentioned how anti-drug forces in Bolivia are now using Israeli-made drones to help hunt down drug labs and cocaine farms across the country. Felipe Caceras, Bolivia’s anti-drug czar, claims that some 240 drug labs were shut down in just one month thanks to drones.


The lesson learned in Bolivia has not been lost on those working in drug enforcement in the United States. A report recently revealed that the Department of Homeland Security has been testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for the past 18 months. The tests were meant to help pave the way for a much larger, multi-million dollar program aimed at expanding the number of unmanned surveillance flights taking place in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling.


According to the Los Angeles Times, the decision will result in a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. drone flights taking place in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps more shocking given how little attention the story received, is that this one project will double the square miles covered by Homeland Security drones. The aircraft will be based primarily in the United States, with one base in Corpus Christi, Texas and another in Cocoa Beach, Florida. It’s possible that future bases will be constructed in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, depending on the success of the program.


While many might not mind these international forays, it might come as a surprise to hear how often drones hover above American soil. A recent interview with U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican from Maine, revealed her concern about the increasing use of the devices in the United States. Snowe described how she supported an amendment to something as benign as the farm bill that would have prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from conducting aerial surveillance of farm operations. “Unfortunately that failed to get the 60 votes necessary.”


Snowe says she sees situations where drones are useful but hopes they will be limited to patrolling border areas. Snowe, as well as many who worry about the impact such devices have on the privacy of ordinary Americans, hopes that Congress addresses the brewing problem by spelling out when and where local law enforcement will be permitted to use such drones. Handing over responsibility for rulemaking to an agency like the FAA (which currently oversees requests to use drones) minimizes the importance of the threat they pose.


As we discussed previously, remote controlled aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated and include models that can silently hover over a location for hours undetected, providing a stream of video and other surveillance data to officers in a command center. Drones today range from plane-sized crafts capable of carrying missiles, to units easily stored in backpacks and launched by hand. They pose a huge privacy risk with cameras that can provide high-resolution pictures and lenses that are able to take pictures in very low light, or even in the dark, with the help of infrared lenses.


Groups like the ACLU say that drones should be prohibited from spying based on First Amendment grounds. The group, as well as other privacy advocates, argues that there should be “specific and articulable” evidence that a crime has been committed before the remote controlled aircraft can be used. Warrants should be required before the devices ever liftoff and drones should not be permitted to hover aimlessly in the sky, watching and waiting to strike.


While many are worried about the growing use of drones at home, other groups, especially local police agencies, are clamoring for increased access to unmanned aircraft. Law enforcement agencies across the country are actively lobbying for permission to use such drones for day-to-day operations. They claim that the aircraft offer huge financial savings rather than using piloted aircraft or helicopters.


Local law enforcement has the strong backing of another group: the manufacturers of these drones. If the companies have their way, skies over civilians’ heads will soon be busy with unmanned vehicles. Drones are a major growth sector in the aviation sector, with dozens of companies competing for a share of the incredibly lucrative market.


CNN profiled one such manufacturer, Insitu Pacific, and its managing director, Andrew Duggan. Duggan is hoping that the FAA relaxes rules on the non-military use of unmanned aerial vehicles. He claims that the controversy exists over an unfair stigma attached to the term “drone” thanks to a handful of unfortunate incidents abroad. Tellingly, Duggan said, “People are hung up over privacy, but it’s a lot of unnecessary drama. They are no different from having a police helicopter over your head, or a security camera pointed at you.”


The spread closer to home has begun in earnest as a recent trove of documents revealed just this week. The FAA agreed to release some 125 drone certificates as well as thousands of pages of accompanying documents in response to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency. One of the groups found to have applied for and received authorization to use such drones is located right here in Washington. The following is a summary of the Seattle Police Department’s planned use of the drones:


The objective of our program is to create a higher standard of safety for members of our community by utilizing the Draganflyer [sic] X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in support of numerous Law Enforcement related functions which could include but are not limited to:


1)    Crash site related to interstate transport of hazardous materials

2)    Crash site related to railroad transport of hazardous materials

3)    Search & Rescue operations

4)    Tactical support of Law Enforcement operations


As is so often the case with such programs, the devil’s in the details and the details here are definitely lacking. The fourth example given by the Seattle PD is exactly the kind of language that concerns those worried about the impact of drones on their privacy. The police department offered no explanation as to what the limits of this support might be. While we wait on further word, it’s probably good advice to keep an eye to the sky.

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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