…FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III admitted that the United States has used drones over US airspace. It was the first time an FBI official publicly admitted such a program exists, but if you want to believe pop culture (the latest Bourne installment, a recent Castle episode, the Call of Duty video game), drone use is more common than we think.
What we know:
- Drones (or unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft) have been used since the early 1900s, for various purposes, primarily military and law enforcement, though there are increasing demands for public use.
- The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have both tested drones for use in investigations.
- The Federal Aviation Administration has to approve all drone use in US airspace.
- The FBI has requested this permission at least four times since 2010.
Mueller testified that the drone program “has been a contributing factor, one dot among many dots” to help track terrorist plots. The other “dots” he was referring to include telephone logs and Internet records. He continued, “You never know which dot is going to be the key…but you want as many dots as you can. And if you close down a program like this, there will be … fewer dots to connect.”
Members of Congress immediately began clamoring for “transparency” from Mueller as to how specifically drones have been used, which he declined to provide, stating, “There is a price to be paid for that transparency…I certainly think it would be educating our adversaries as to what our capabilities are.” He also noted that drone use is “very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized needs”.
Does it affect our privacy?
Senators sure seem to think so. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, inquired what kinds of protections the FBI has put in place in regards to how information is used by federal investigators. She called drones “the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans.”
Another area of concern involves the policies about drone use. The problem? There really aren’t any firm policies yet. Mueller said the FBI was in the “initial stages” of writing policies. “We’re exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use,” he added.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-CO supports the notion that drones can be helpful with law enforcement agencies, but stressed that Constitutional rights must be protected first. Udall said, “I am concerned the FBI is deploying drone technology while only being in the ‘initial stages’ of developing guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy rights.”
Is the FBI putting the proverbial cart before the horse by implementing drone use before policies are in place? Do we need to honor the need for “non-transparency” for our own safety? Should we be afraid of drones and their threat to our privacy? Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, wrote in the Huffington Post that drones “could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the 21st century.” Maybe it will take the notion of truly being watched without our knowledge anywhere, anytime, to lead to real change.