WASHINGTON - As federal authorities accelerate plans to license thousands of surveillance drones over U.S. soil by late 2015, some legal experts and lawmakers are warning that unmanned aircraft could threaten privacy on an unparalleled scale.
An opening shot in an expected battle to limit use of domestic drones came Wednesday when 24 civil-liberties and privacy organizations submitted a formal petition to U.S. Customs and Border Protection demanding that the agency stop flying 10 unarmed Predator drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders until clear guidelines are established.
"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that explored whether legislation was needed to curtail drone use to protect civil liberties.
Committee members warned that the ability to spy from unmanned aircraft would increase faster than laws could be written to guard against abuses.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the committee, noted that Google agreed last week to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit for violating people's privacy by collecting passwords, email and other data from unsuspecting computer users as part of its Street View mapping project.
"One company's push to gather data on Americans can lead to vast overcollection and potential privacy violations," Leahy said. "Before we allow widespread commercial use of drones in the domestic airspace, we need to carefully consider the impact on the privacy rights of Americans."
Amie Stepanovich, a surveillance expert at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, said police were more likely to use drones than manned aircraft because they are less expensive to buy and to operate. She urged the panel to require drone operators to file detailed public reports on drone use and to limit sharing of data collected by drones.
"The current state of the law is insufficient to address the drone surveillance," she said.
"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa