After 911 it was Anwar al-Awalaki and his son -now it's for the rest of us

The Dawning of Domestic Drones
Published: December 25, 2012

The drones are coming to a neighborhood near you.

The unmanned aircraft that most people associate with hunting terrorists and striking targets in Pakistan are on the brink of evolving into a big domestic industry. It is not a question of whether drones will appear in the skies above the United States but how soon.

Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly select six domestic sites to test the safety of drones, which can vary in size from remote-controlled planes as big as jetliners to camera-toting hoverers called Nano Hummingbirds that weigh 19 grams.

The drone go-ahead, signed in February by President Obama in the F.A.A. reauthorization law, envisions a $5 billion-plus industry of camera drones being used for all sorts of purposes from real estate advertising to crop dusting to environmental monitoring and police work.

Responding to growing concern as the public discovers drones are on the horizon, the agency recently and quite sensibly added the issue of citizens’ privacy to its agenda. Setting regulations under the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unlawful search is of the utmost importance. But since the F.A.A.’s primary mission is safety, Congress should take the matter in hand by writing privacy safeguards for the booming drone industry.

The anticipated market includes tens of thousands of police, fire and other government agencies able to afford drones lighter than traditional aircraft and costing as little as $300. Several surveillance drones are already used for border patrol, and the F.A.A. has allowed a few police departments to experiment narrowly, as in a ceiling of 400 feet for surveillance flights over the Everglades by the Miami Police Department.

Privacy worries in California prompted Alameda County officials to postpone drone plans for further study. The local sheriff insisted that what he had in mind was disaster response, not random snooping, but the local American Civil Liberties Union office claimed the plan would have permitted extensive intelligence gathering.

The A.C.L.U.’s national office is warning that while drones could have many benefits like search-and-rescue work and tracking dangerous criminal situations, the law’s lack of privacy mandates will inevitably invite “pervasive surveillance” of the public.

The idea of watchful drones buzzing overhead like Orwellian gnats may seem far-fetched to some. But Congress, in its enthusiasm for a new industry, should guarantee the strongest protection of privacy under what promises to be a galaxy of new eyes in the sky.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on December 26, 2012, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: The Dawning of Domestic Drones.