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Senators examine domestic drones' effect on privacy

Some Senate committee members and legal experts warn that unmanned aircraft pose a serious threat to Americans' civil liberties.

March 20, 2013|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), leads the hearing on domestic drones and privacy issues.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), with Sen.… (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — As federal authorities accelerate plans to license thousands of surveillance drones over U.S. soil by late 2015, some legal experts and lawmakers are warning that unmanned aircraft could threaten privacy on an unparalleled scale.

An opening shot in an expected battle to limit use of domestic drones came Wednesday when 24 civil liberties and privacy organizations submitted a formal petition to U.S. Customs and Border Protection demanding that the agency stop flying 10 unarmed Predator drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders until clear guidelines are established.

So far, no privacy policy defines how long government authorities may keep video and other data collected by the drones, how it can be used or whether it can be shared with other government agencies or the public.

"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that explored whether legislation was needed to curtail drone use to protect civil liberties.

Committee members warned that the ability to spy from unmanned aircraft would increase faster than laws could be written to guard against abuses.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee, noted that Google agreed last week to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit for violating people's privacy by collecting passwords, email and other data from unsuspecting computer users as part of its Street View mapping project.

"One company's push to gather data on Americans can lead to vast over-collection and potential privacy violations," Leahy said. "Before we allow widespread commercial use of drones in the domestic airspace, we need to carefully consider the impact on the privacy rights of Americans."

Amie Stepanovich, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, said police were more likely to use drones than manned aircraft because they are less expensive to buy and to operate. She urged the panel to require drone operators to file detailed public reports on drone use and to limit sharing of data collected by drones.

"The current state of the law is insufficient to address the drone surveillance," she said.

The Federal Aviation Administration began issuing drone licenses in 2007. Since then, it has authorized more than 1,400 unmanned aircraft for limited use by local police departments, universities and several federal agencies. The drones range from bird-sized devices to Predators that weigh 2 1/2 tons and have a 66-foot wingspan.

Under pressure by drone manufacturers, Congress has mandated the FAA to open U.S. airspace to commercial drone traffic by September 2015, and the agency has estimated that 10,000 unmanned aircraft could be licensed by 2020. In addition to aiding law enforcement, drones can be flown to survey crops, photograph real estate for sale, report on traffic and for other uses.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said its pilots abided by current law regarding government collection and use of photographs, video and other data. The material "is stored and protected with the standard controls in place for law enforcement sensitive information, and access is restricted to approved CBP personnel with an official need-to-know in a law enforcement capacity," said Michael Friel, an agency spokesman.

The agency is writing a "privacy impact assessment" to define procedures for collecting and handling information gathered by the agency's Predator drones, as well as its manned aircraft, helicopters and fixed surveillance towers. The new rules "will be completed and posted to our public website within the next few months," the agency said.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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