CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Rutherford Institute  — With at least 30,000 drones expected to occupy U.S. airspace by 2020, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on government officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County to do their part to safeguard Virginians against the use of drones by police, especially for surveillance and crowd control purposes. Specifically, Whitehead has provided the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council with a model resolution urging the General Assembly to prevent police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibit the government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions. Rutherford Institute attorneys have drafted and made available to the public language that can be adopted at all levels of government—local, state and federal—in order to address concerns being raised about the threats posed by drones to citizens’ privacy and civil liberties.
“Once these drones take to the skies, there really will be no place to hide,” said Whitehead. “If we are to have any hope of safeguarding our privacy rights, it needs to start with our elected representatives at all levels of government—local, state and federal—establishing clear limits on how and when these aerial, robotic threats to privacy and security can be used by law enforcement officials.”
As The Rutherford Institute’s fact sheet details, the FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2012, has authorized the use of drones domestically for a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate. Prior to this, drones had been confined to military use in the battlefields over Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as attorney John Whitehead points out, without proper safeguards, these drones, some of which are deceptively small and capable of videotaping the facial expressions of people on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, will usher in a new age of surveillance in American society. Not even those indoors, in the privacy of their homes, will be safe from these aerial spies, which can be equipped with technology capable of peering through walls.
In addition to their surveillance capabilities, drone manufacturers have confirmed that drones can also be equipped with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, tear gas, and tasers. Aside from the very serious and grave implications for privacy and civil liberties raised by Whitehead, there are also a number of safety issues involved with drone technology, with the paramount concern being that drones have a history of malfunctioning mid-air. Drones are also vulnerable to hackers, allowing unauthorized persons to access information gathered via drone, or to take control of the drone’s flight path. Many local police departments throughout the country, including in Florida and California, have already begun utilizing drones in police procedures without any real regulations in place.
In calling on lawmakers to be proactive in safeguarding their constituents against drones, Whitehead warned against adopting legislation either too narrow in scope to have any serious impact on the widespread threat to privacy and civil liberties or providing law enforcement officials with greater leeway to use drones conditioned only on their first acquiring a court-issued warrant.