They range from inexpensive models on toy store shelves to four-figure ones equipped to multitask. They are sent over roofs and backyards, and over forest fires and stadiums. In some parts of the world, they are efficient, effective spies and executioners.
They are drones, of course — technically, “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) — that are controlled by an operator on the ground. Drones are now used for everything from aerial photography to crop dusting, and are envisioned to be part of the future of package delivery. The Federal Aviation Administration has registered more than 750,000 operators and predicts that four million drones will be in use by 2020.
Whether we see or hear the UAVs or not, they are everywhere, and their ubiquity unnerves many.
Including governmental authorities, most recently and prominently, the Trump administration, which last week circulated new rules to allow authorities to track and destroy the small hovercraft if they fly over sensitive areas.
The rules would permit authorities to “disrupt, redirect, disable, seize or confiscate” any unmanned aerial vehicle without prior consent under certain circumstances, according to the documents, which the White House shared with congressional committees Tuesday.
Interestingly, drones first came to broad public attention in the 1960s, when Israel introduced UAVs with reconnaissance cameras, deploying them into enemy territory. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, drones were used as decoys to spur Arab forces to waste expensive anti-aircraft missiles. The U.S. has used drones extensively overseas, including in targeted killings of terrorists.
Recent years have seen an explosion of what might be called “recreational” drones, hobby flying machines directed by their operators over hill and dale on lazy weekend afternoons.
That many drones are equipped with cameras has made them menacing to many citizens, who, understandably, see the machines as potential violators of their privacy. At times, they are threats to safety. An out-of-control drone can crash with little warning and a targeted one can carry an explosive. Two years ago, a man was arrested for trying to fly a drone over the White House, and a drone crashed, not long after that, at a major sporting event.
Concerns about drones were only intensified earlier this month, when a federal court struck down a rule requiring citizens to register them.
Under current laws protecting commercial aircraft, government cannot jam signals to drones or shoot them down. Instead, authorities must locate the drone operator on the ground to stop a flight.
The new proposed rules would change that, allowing authorities to interrupt a drone’s flight or even destroy it if it flies over areas deemed to be sensitive, like airports and government installations.
The draft bill states that government would have to respect “privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.” But courts would have no jurisdiction to hear lawsuits arising from such activity.
Which, predictably, has raised the hackles of drone enthusiasts and civil liberties advocates.
“We aren’t diametrically opposed to the concept of regulating commercial drones,” said Steve Cohen, the president of the Drone User Group Network. But he warns of “regulatory overreach.” That the administration is effectively asking for “warrantless searches of electronic data,” is seeking no guidance on what constitutes a threat, and “wants no accountability after the fact,” is, according to Mr. Cohen, “a trifecta of ‘no.’”
Technology writer Jacob Brogan raises the issue that “you’d probably have no real recourse if the military shot down your drone, even if you were flying it innocently.” And adds that, since the draft rules indicate that any drone brought down by authorities “is subject to forfeiture to the United States,” that would mean “that you might not even be able to reclaim its battered husk afterward.” Moreover, he adds, “a system capable of penetrating drone communications might raise serious civil liberty issues, since it would presumably grant law enforcement access to the devices used to control unmanned aircraft,” including smartphones.
In normal times, such concerns would be entirely justified. Privacy and civil rights are cornerstones of American jurisprudence and society. But the threat of “creative” terrorism has become intensified over the years since September 11, 2001, and the encounter of security concerns and civil liberties has, in many arenas, become fraught.
The proposed rules are thought to be intended as part of the National Defense Authorization Act being put together by armed services committees, which has to be approved by Congress every year.
Whenever they are put before legislators, though, as long as proper precautions to avoid misuse and overreach are in place, with all due respect to civil liberties and privacy concerns, they should not be opposed. We live in unusual times, which merit unusual caution.