Drones: Coming to a city near you

Holly New

We’ve always known that Big Brother was watching, but now they’re sending reinforcements.

Surveillance may soon be taking a much creepier turn as the use of drones will become more commonplace. According to the BBC, drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can “stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground” and can also be “armed with laser-guided missiles.”

Drones are typically used in war situations where manned flight is considered too risky; they have been used primarily in the execution of known terrorists. William Saletan of Slate.com reported in September 2011 that “the total number of al-Qaida, Taliban, and associated operatives killed by the drones now exceeds 2,000.” However, this technology has already made its way into law enforcement here in America.

According to Jason Koebler of USNews.com, in June 2012, Rodney Brossart refused to give back six cows that had wandered onto his property in Lakota, N.D. His refusal sparked a 16-hour standoff with the Grand Forks Police Department. During that time, Homeland Security offered the use of an unmanned drone for the purpose of “surveillance.”

If that wasn’t eerie enough, it appears that other institutions have picked up on the drone trend. The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to find out who had filed a request for the use of domestic drones. The list includes police departments, including those in Houston; Orange County, Fla.; and North Little Rock, Ark.; as well as federal institutions, including the FBI.

The scary part, however, is the number of colleges and universities on that list. The universities of Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Colorado-Boulder, Wisconsin and Connecticut are just a handful of the colleges requesting permission for the use of drones.

According to Isolde Raftery of NBC News, “At least 50 universities in the U.S. have centers, academic programs or clubs for drone engineering or flying.” However, this information leaves many questions unanswered. Will drones be used to spy on students on campus? Who collects the information gathered from these machines? Where will drones fit in accordance with privacy laws?

I don’t like being watched, and I don’t think most other people do. Citizens should feel comfortable walking down a sidewalk without the perception that an aircraft is flying overhead. Luckily, some places are putting a stop to the use of domestic drones.

Charlottesville, Va., has passed a resolution prohibiting all municipal agencies from purchasing or using drones. According to USA Today, on Feb. 7 Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn decided to return two drones received as part of a federal grant after enormous public protest.

Jason Koebler of USNews.com reported in a later article that the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that, if signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, will put a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. Until more is known about the purposes of domestic drones, their use should be halted.

Where does the line between safety and privacy truly fall? Be careful what you do, because cameras may be flying overhead in a city near you.