As drones begin to play a larger role in America, Congress is still struggling how to best address the privacy implications ubiquitous unmanned aircraft present without hamstringing a growing industry that could create thousands of American jobs over the next several years.
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday to discuss the future of drones in America raised more questions than it answered. At the hearing, nearly every lawmaker raised concerns about "persistent surveillance" on American citizens and the potential Fourth Amendment violations that would cause.
But with drones poised to create as many as 70,000 American jobs within three years of their proposed commercial integration into U.S. airspace in 2015, lawmakers were reluctant to limit civilian unmanned aerial vehicle use too much.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the jobs drones can create "is a very seductive thing" but that government needs to "decide for which purposes drones can be legitimately used."
Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said they can be used to "carry out arduous and dangerous tasks that would be difficult for humans to undertake. ... But it's not hard to imagine the serious privacy problems this type of technology could cause. This is raising some very serious questions from people from the far left to the far right."
Among those questions: Should law enforcement need to get a warrant to use drones? Can they use them for "passive surveillance" at large public gatherings? Should they be allowed to equip drones with nonlethal weapons such as tear gas or pepper spray?
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that just because government use of drones might be legal doesn't mean they should be used without strict limits.
"Just because their use might comply with the Constitution doesn't mean they should be able to constantly surveil like Big Brother. That runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," he said. "Where do we draw the line in balancing the rights of the people with … the time saving and cost saving possibilities of drones?"
Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said during the panel that Americans' "privacy concerns are well founded," but that the problem extends far beyond drones.
"There's very little in privacy law that would limit domestic drone use," he says. "I think [drones] could be a wonderful, deeply transformative thing … but some safeguards are absolutely necessary, otherwise Americans are going to reject this technology which I think could be very beneficial."
Several lawmakers have introduced legislation that would limit police use of drones. A bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts seems to have gotten the most traction—it would require law enforcement to get a warrant in order to operate a drone and would set data retention limits on the information collected by drones. So far, at least 29 states are considering legislation that would limit drone use. Calo suggested that Congress might want to watch how legislation proceeds in the states before deciding whether federal legislation is necessary.
"I'm not convinced that federal legislation is the right move at this time," he said. "The states might serve as the best laboratories."