The anxiety has spilled into Congress, where lawmakers from both parties have been meeting to discuss legislation that would broadly address the civil-liberty issues. A Landry provision in a defense spending bill would prohibit information gathered by military drones without a warrant from being used as evidence in court. A provision that Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., added to another bill would prohibit the Homeland Security Department from arming its drones, including ones used to patrol the border.
Scott and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced identical bills to prohibit any government agency from using a drone to "gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation" without a warrant.
"I just don't like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates," Paul said in an interview, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks.
He acknowledged that was an "extreme example," but he added: "They might just say we'd be safer from muggings if we had constant surveillance crisscrossing the street all the time. But then the question becomes, 'What about jaywalking? What about eating too many donuts? What about putting mayonnaise on your hamburger?' Where does it stop?"
Calabrese, the ACLU lobbyist, called Paul's office as soon as he heard about the bill.
"I told them we think they are starting from the right place," Calabrese said. "You should need some kind of basis before you use a drone to spy on someone."
In a Congress noted for its political polarization, legislation to check drone use has the potential to forge "a left-right consensus," he said. "It bothers us for a lot of the same reasons it bothers conservatives."
The backlash has drone makers concerned. The drone market is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years, from current worldwide expenditures of nearly $6 billion annually to more than $11 billion, with police departments accounting for a significant part of that growth.
"We go into this with every expectation that the laws governing public safety and personal privacy will not be administered any differently for (drones) than they are for any other law enforcement tool," said Dan Elwell, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Discussion of the issue has been colored by exaggerated drone tales spread largely by conservative media and bloggers.
Scott said he was prompted to introduce his bill in part by news reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using drones to spy on cattle ranchers in Nebraska. The agency has indeed been searching for illegal dumping of waste into streams, but it is doing it with piloted planes.
In another case, a forecast of 30,000 drones in U.S. skies by 2020 has been widely attributed to the FAA. But FAA spokeswoman Brie Sachse said the agency has no idea where the figure came from. It may be a mangled version of an aerospace industry forecast that there could be nearly 30,000 drones worldwide by 2018, with the United States accounting for half of them.
Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairs of a congressional privacy caucus, asked the FAA in April how it plans to protect privacy as it develops regulations for integrating drones into airspace now exclusively used by aircraft with human pilots. There's been no response so far, but Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will probably be asked about it when he testifies at a Senate hearing Thursday.
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