What's Driving Drone Opposition?

Drones are like red light cameras—they are unpopular because they are too good at their jobs.

By + More
The company's founder says he thinks people will attach the Drone Shield to their fences or roofs to protect their home from surveillance.

When Rand Paul gave his filibuster last week, he focused on an extremely narrow and hypothetical scenario: Does the U.S. government have the right to use unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly known as drones) to kill its own citizens on U.S. soil?

That thought experiment is an extreme hypothetical. In the real world, state legislators are deciding whether local police departments can use drones at all.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

The day after Rand Paul's filibuster, a Florida House committee unanimously passed the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, a bill that would restrict when the police can use drones in their investigations:

The bill bans the use of drones for surveillance unless officers obtain a search warrant or the Department of Homeland Security declares a terrorist threat, police are chasing an escaping suspect or if there is "imminent danger to a life or serious danger to a property."

But while Workman said he's willing to consider revision of that requirement, he doesn't want a bill that's so "loosey goosey" that police could spy on a neighborhood while claiming they were using a drone for traffic control.

Florida's bill is on one end of a spectrum of what states may end up permitting their police to do with drones.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

At the other end of the spectrum is Montana, where the state Senate has passed a bill announcing that "information from an unmanned aerial vehicle may not be introduced into evidence in a criminal trial for any purpose." The Montana example is quite extreme, but it is not the only example of a state putting a hard restriction on how drones can be used. Virginia's House has approved a moratorium that will last until 2015. One Indiana state legislator was promoting a bill that would prohibit public money being used to purchase drones. (The bill's author was eventually convinced to drop his legislation and support a committee studying drones instead.)

What drives this opposition? Some of the antidrone rhetoric is not very subtle: The Facebook page of Indiana Drone Watch for example, is emblazoned with a giant image of a drone firing a missile into a cornfield. It is imagery that evokes Sen. Ted Cruz's question to Attorney General Eric Holder about whether or not a drone could target a terrorist suspect sitting in a café. This imagery that some antidrone advocates has chosen to use beguiles what a more common use of drones by police would be: enforcement of laws that need to be enforced but which voters find annoying.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Gone Too Far With His Drone Policies?]

The best analogue to domestic drone use might be red light cameras. Consider what one Iowa legislator said when he capitalized on Rand Paul's filibuster to introduce his own legislation to put a moratorium on done use:

My concern is, kind of like what we saw with the traffic cameras, once that can gets opened it never gets put back in.

In many ways, a red light camera is similar to a drone: The camera is a stationary observer that is able to capture law-breaking behavior without drawing attention to itself. Its opponents claim that using a camera like this is a violation of their civil liberties. (Opponents of Red Light Cameras claim they violate the Fifth Amendment.)

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Probable Cause Be Required for Police to Use Cell Phone Location Data?]

Never mind the fact that in addition to being found constitutional by courts it turns out that they work. When laws are enforced and people are punished for them, there are fewer violations of traffic codes. For some, "freedom" means the freedom to disobey traffic laws unless identified by a human eyeball as opposed to something that never blinks.

Much like the concern that drones will be too good at their jobs because they are quiet, red light cameras are unpopular with the public precisely because they are effective at their job.

Some of the legislation designed to curtail drone use may be trying to simply bring the equipment in line with what police are already allowed to do legally. But in cases where proposed legislation tries to restrict the ability of the police to purchase drones, or make it impossible to use the evidence from drones in court, it would not be a stretch to say they they are jumping on what one McCain aid called the "black helicopters crazytrain".

  • Read Annke E. Green: Rand Paul's Filibuster Was GOP Win, Not the McCain-Graham Tantrum
  • Read Jamie Chandler: Save the American Dream From Washington's Bickering
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.