Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Consider the Qube. It’s 3 feet long, weighs about 5 pounds and can be assembled in a jiffy. It’s equipped with thermal and high-resolution cameras. It can fly all by itself, for 40 minutes at a time, hovering noiselessly at up to 500 feet. And it films all it sees.

The Qube, made by AeroVironment Inc., is one model in a growing fleet of drones -- or, technically, unmanned aerial vehicles -- now plying the skies above the U.S., piloted remotely by National Guard units and Customs and Border Protection agents, for just two examples. These machines have proved invaluable in war zones, and their expanding use domestically holds great promise.

But surveillance drones also create daunting privacy concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration now requires government and research organizations to apply for authorization before they can operate such aircraft. A bill signed Feb. 14, however, charges the FAA with speeding up the approval process for new operators and with fully integrating drones into American airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

As it does so, the FAA, working with other agencies, should take steps to help ensure that drones fly within the parameters of the Constitution.

Advantages, Concerns

The advantages of unmanned aircraft are plain. Governments or aid groups could use them to coordinate disaster relief. Police could track fleeing suspects or search for missing people. Urban planners and first responders could monitor traffic jams, fires or floods in real time.

But it’s easy to imagine how drone surveillance could begin to violate civil liberties. Drones will enable far stealthier and more sophisticated surveillance over a far greater range than police helicopters ever could. Did we mention that some drones can intercept communications? Or peer through windows? Or that, someday soon, they could be equipped with facial-recognition technology?

Recreational drones are largely unregulated, save for the FAA’s modest guidance for model airplanes. A jilted lover stalking an ex might find one useful. So might a drug dealer, an unscrupulous tabloid reporter or a helicopter parent (quite literally now). So might a terrorist. They’re all free to construct one in their garage.

The market for unmanned aircraft seems likely to grow. Congress recently increased research and development financing for drones by about 16 percent, to $2.02 billion in fiscal 2012, according to Bloomberg Government data. The Defense Department said it may continue to increase drone funding even as it scales back other programs. Only 1 percent of the 18,000 or so local law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. have access to a manned aircraft; many more will find uses for the far-cheaper unmanned variety.

So, how can we safeguard privacy in this new era?

Start by requiring police to obtain warrants for drone use that would violate reasonable privacy, except in clearly defined emergencies or to stop a crime in progress. Government agencies should notify the public of any continuous monitoring they plan -- say, of traffic trouble spots -- and post a list of such programs online.

Personally identifiable data collected by drones, unless part of a criminal investigation, should be subject to fair information practice principles. These require notice that data is being collected about you, choice about how it is used, access to your own collected data and protection of its security. Retaining or sharing such information should be strictly regulated.

Licenses Needed

Private owners of drones should also be required to obtain FAA approval for their aircraft and a license to operate it. In doing so, they should be alerted to potential violations of private-property rights and state privacy laws.

Finally, the FAA should clarify what constitutes appropriate use of unmanned aircraft. It should release the names and organizations of all the public drone operators receiving authorization. And it should study the impact that expanded drone use will have on civil liberties. The agency is accustomed to regulating safety, not privacy. As more and more drones come under its authority, its role should evolve.

Privacy, of course, is only one problem facing the widespread adoption of unmanned aircraft. Pilots’ groups have raised safety concerns because the technology required for drones to “sense and avoid” other aircraft isn’t up to snuff. Emergency shutdown procedures and other precautions also need to be clarified.

Properly regulated, drones have the potential to vastly improve our lives. But you don’t have to be a technophobe to fear the consequences of a self-imposed panopticon.

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