Drone Programs Spark Budgetary, Privacy, Legal Concerns

01.31.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The development of unmanned aerial systems (or drones) for military and civilian applications appears to be accelerating faster than the normal policy process can adapt to it.  Aside from festering doubts about the legality, propriety and wisdom of their routine use in targeted killing operations, drone programs are beset by budgetary confusion, and a host of privacy and other legal problems are poised to emerge with the expanded use of drones in domestic airspace.

Already there is a bewildering multiplicity of drone development programs, said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) on the Senate floor yesterday.

“There is no question in terms of our warfighting and our intelligence services that our unmanned capability has been a tremendous asset to us,” Sen. Coburn said. “But somebody needs to ask the question, Why do we have 15 different sets of programs run from 5 different agencies costing us $37 billion over 5 years? Where is the explanation for that? Where is the idea that we might concentrate expertise in one or two areas or three areas or four? But to have 15 separate programs means we are wasting money and getting less out of the research and less out of the dollars we invested than if we were to streamline those programs and limit them to targeted objectives. But we refuse to do that.”

Meanwhile, “Perhaps the most contentious issue concerning the introduction of drones into U.S. airspace is the threat that this technology will be used to spy on American citizens,” said a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

“With the ability to house high-powered cameras, infrared sensors, facial recognition technology, and license plate readers, some argue that drones present a substantial privacy risk. Undoubtedly, the government’s use of drones for domestic surveillance operations implicates the Fourth Amendment and other applicable laws.”

“Additionally,” CRS said, “there are a host of related legal issues that may arise with this introduction of drones in U.S. skies. These include whether a property owner may protect his property from a trespassing drone; how stalking, harassment, and other criminal laws should be applied to acts committed with the use of drones; and to what extent federal aviation law could preempt future state law.”

A copy of the CRS report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues, January 30, 2013.

See also Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): Manufacturing Trends, January 30, 2013.

Additional resources on drone policy issues are available from the Electronic Privacy Information Center here.