Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:00 PM
It's not unusual for some new whizbang technology that promises many beneficial uses to also come with the potential of more sinister applications.
That's how many people view UAVs, the unmanned aerial vehicles commonly called drones.
While drones are best known for providing our troops with a bird's-eye view of the battlefield and blasting suspected terrorists throughout the Middle East, less threatening, civilian UAVs are finding work here at home in a number of industries including agriculture.
Drones can be used by scientists to photograph and measure things that previously required boots-on-the-ground investigations. Researchers are using drones to study invasive species on public rangelands. They have the potential of helping farmers monitor the progress of crops, record field conditions and track the advance of pests.
While there's no evidence of widespread use of drones by regulatory agencies, there is growing concern among farm interests and civil libertarians that their enhanced capabilities and their relative low cost will lead to more extensive and pervasive regulatory surveillance.
Before that happens, Congress needs to set rules that will protect Americans from warrantless snooping.
A Congressional Research Service report says future generations of drones will be equipped with thermal imaging and radar systems that will let them "see" through walls. Armed with high-altitude cameras, drones able to stay aloft for days at a time could record all manner of activity over a wide swath of private property.
Trevor Timm is an attorney and activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy and free speech group that has been leery of how law enforcement and regulators might use this technology as it becomes more sophisticated.
He said their use should be subject to a higher legal standard. We agree. If authorities want to regularly monitor a dairy or feedlot, they should get a warrant. At the very least they should have probable cause to believe some violation exists.
"People rightly recoil when they think about drones flying overhead 24/7," he said. "In our view, that's an infringement of people's liberty, whether you're walking down the street or own a farm."
Proponents of the use of drones in regulatory enforcement are quick to point out that agents in conventional aircraft are free to make warrantless flights over farms, factories and other private property looking for violations, or anything else of interest.
Using a drone, they say, is only an extension of what could be accomplished with a good pair of binoculars and an unobstructed view.
In our opinion, being spied on and photographed by live government agents is only slightly less Orwellian than being surveilled by unmanned drones.
For the most part, the expense of conventional flights limits their use to cases where regulators have a reasonable suspicion. Absent any restraint, we think citizens should be rightly concerned that rigorous aerial enforcement will allow the government to keep a watchful eye on their lawful, private activity.