Politics

February 16, 2013

Law enforcement drones raising privacy concerns

Congress and the courts have yet to determine if drone surveillance would violate privacy laws more than manned planes or helicopters.

By BRIAN BENNETT and JOEL RUBIN Tribune Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Pfc. Joseph Robinson of Eugene, Ore., launches a “Raven,” an unmanned reconnaissance drone, at Combat Outpost Senjeray, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2010.

The Associated Press

"Americans have the right to know if and how the government is using drones to spy on them," said Catherine Crump, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has called for updating laws to protect privacy.

A backlash has already started.

In Congress, Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced privacy legislation Thursday that would require police to get a warrant or a court order before operating a drone to collect information on individuals.

"We need to protect against obtrusive search and surveillance by government and civilian use," Poe said in a telephone interview. A similar bill failed last year.

Legislatures in 15 states are considering proposals to limit drone use. The City Council in Charlottesville, Va., passed a resolution on Feb. 4 barring local police from using drones -- which they don't yet have -- to collect evidence in criminal cases.

In Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn ordered police to return two Draganflyer X6 helicopter drones earlier this month after privacy advocates and others protested. The police said they had hoped to use them for search-and-rescue operations.

Federal agencies fly drones to assist in disasters, check flood damage, do crop surveys and more. U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies the largest fleet, 10 unarmed Predators, along the northern and southern borders to help track smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Although flying drones might appear as easy as playing a video game, pilots and crews require extensive training.

In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Marshals Service tested two small drones in remote areas to help them track fugitives, according to law enforcement officials and documents released to the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. The Marshals Service abandoned the program after both drones crashed.

Except in rare cases, the military is barred from using drones in U.S. airspace to conduct surveillance or pursue individuals. No state or federal agency has proposed arming domestic drones with weapons, but the prospect has raised alarms in Congress and elsewhere.

DIFFERENT RULES

In response to a question during an online Google chat Thursday, President Obama said drones had never been used to kill "an American citizen on American soil."

"The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States, in part because our capacity, for example, to capture terrorists in the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan," Obama said.

No drone was sent up to help find suspected killer Christopher Dorner after his truck was found burning near Big Bear Lake in Southern California on Feb. 7, said Al Daniel, an officer in the aviation division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

But Customs and Border Protection transmitted secure video from a Pilatus PC-12 plane to police commanders on the ground.

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