Editorial: Well regulated drones OK


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Recently, the Des Moines Register obtained emails in which Iowa law-enforcement officials considered purchasing drones to be used in some policing capacity.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that are operated via remote control with a variety of legitimate domestic law-enforcement uses including assistance in search and rescue missions, dangerous tactical operations, criminal investigations, and other situations.

They can range from the size of a Boeing 737 to a tiny craft with a 6.5-inch wingspan called a hummingbird that weighs less than one AA battery.

This technology can pose a serious threat to the privacy of ordinary citizens. However, these drones can cover more area and do so more efficiently than ordinary humans, and their costs are falling. Therefore, the Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the use of drone aircraft is acceptable only under strict regulation and oversight implemented by the state and federal government.

Because drones are becoming increasingly inexpensive, they’re becoming more and more attractive to police departments. They are currently in use along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mesa County, Colo., and most state legislatures have seen legislation seeking the approval of domestic drones.

Drones identified in Iowa law-enforcement emails included relatively inexpensive drones from a Verizon store.

“I was at a Verizon store and saw they were selling drones,” one from Nov. 17 read. “They cost $300. Please have someone look into these. They have a flight time of 30 minutes and HD video camera that show real time video with storage of 32 [gigabytes].”

These emails also discussed obtaining aircraft that are substantially more expensive, ranging from about $100,000 to $150,000 in a Nov. 14 email that concluded that in this price range, the specific drones under consideration wouldn’t be cost-effective.

Information provided in the emails discussed Vertical Take Off and Landing systems, which “require limited space for takeoff and landing, some as little as 5m2.  … They can hover in place, providing constant surveillance of any location.”

According to a December 2011 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, several technologies under development include the ability for cameras to “see through ceilings and walls and allow the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings.” Another involved developing artificial intelligence capable of identifying and tracking individuals.

Perhaps the most surprising of these new technologies was dubbed Gorgon Stare by the U.S. Air Force. It would use many drones that allow the Air Force to monitor an entire city. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was considering using this technology when the report was published.

It’s easy to see how drones, if abused, could potentially turn our society into a surveillance state. Even if well-regulated, there remains the risk of exploitation by corrupt officials or rogue elements in the law enforcement community. In fact, in 2007, the Houston police attempted to test drones without permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the same report by the ACLU.

Given failure to defer to governmental authority by some and the extremely powerful technology advances in drones, it is clear that transparency, strict regulation, oversight, and harsh punishments for violating the rules are absolutely necessary if domestic law enforcement is going to use these new, extraordinarily powerful tools.

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