The Drones Are Coming
For years, the United States has used drones to track foreign terrorists overseas and catch outlaws along the border. But now, thousands of drones are heading to the homeland. Drones are already used for certain purposes here in the United States, but the FAA will soon dramatically expand the use of drones to operate nationwide by the year 2015. It is estimated, by 2020, 30,000 of them will be flying in American skies. Who and what will all of these new eyes in the sky be looking at? No one really knows. But whether we like it or not, the drones are coming.
Who will operate these drones, and what will be their mission? Could it be a suspicious government agent who thinks someone looks kind of funny? The EPA bureaucrat who wants to snoop on somebody’s farm and watch Bessie the cow graze in the pasture? Or a nosy neighbor who wants to make sure someone’s shutters are pretty and the flowers don’t violate the homeowners’ association rules? This is the kind of world that Americans could face as we enter this uncharted and unprecedented world of drone technology. Just because Big Brother can look into someone’s back yard with a drone doesn’t mean they should. That’s why we have the Fourth Amendment. Congress has the legal obligation to ensure that the Fourth Amendment rights of private citizens are protected in this new “drone world.” You see, the Fourth Amendment says that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated…” The Founders wrote the Fourth Amendment to stop this kind of government intrusion into our lives.
The Constitution limits eavesdropping, snooping, and spying on American citizens. While there are some legitimate uses for drones domestically, such as monitoring forest fires, floods and hurricanes, tracking an escaped bank robber, and other law enforcement uses, it is up to Congress to define and limit their use so that the Fourth Amendment and the right of privacy are protected.
That is why I am introducing the Preserving American Privacy Act. Now is the time for Congress to act, not in 2015. With the increased technology of surveillance, Congress must be proactive in protecting civilians from drone surveillance by law enforcement and other private citizens. This bill will ensure the privacy of Americans is protected by establishing guidelines about when and for what purpose law enforcement agencies, private citizens, and businesses can use drones.
First, it would prevent the FAA from issuing a permit for the use of a drone to fly in the United States airspace for the law enforcement purposes unless it is pursuant to a warrant and in the investigation of a felony. This would apply to Federal, State, and local jurisdictions. The warrant exceptions and exigent circumstances rules that are already the law of the land would be the same as those that are applicable in the Federal, State, or local jurisdiction where that surveillance occurs. The bill also includes a clear statement so that it does not prevent the use of drones for border security purposes. Bottom line: no one should be spying on you unless they have the legal authority to do so.
It would also prevent the FAA from issuing a permit to any private individual for the use of a drone for the surveillance of a U.S. citizen or the property of a U.S. citizen unless that person under surveillance has consented or the owner of the property has consented. There may be some other lawful exceptions as well. No one should be looking at another citizens’ private property unless they have permission to do so.
Lastly, this bill would ensure that no evidence obtained from the use of a drone may be used at an administrative hearing. This means that the EPA can’t spy on Bessie or claim that the water on a Nebraska farm is not clean enough.
Americans expect their constitutional rights, privacy and property will be protected by their government—after all that is the reason we have government in the first place. So, Congress must decide now when drones can and cannot be used in order to ensure constitutional safeguards. This decision cannot be left up to government agencies, special interest groups, or others. And it’s a decision that can’t wait.
Technology may change with time, but the Constitution does not.
And that’s just the way it is.
By Rep. Ted Poe