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Editorial: Use of drones shouldn't supersede privacy rights

Sep. 30, 2012 @ 11:35 PM

Government officials and various commercial interests apparently are planning for the day that drones -- those remote-controlled aircraft that the U.S. now uses to spy on its enemies -- will someday be routinely used in this country.

Many of the potential ways they could be employed sound harmless enough, and in many cases could be quite useful. They've been put to use in fighting forest fires. Businesses, such as oil companies, could use them to monitor equipment and facilities, such as pipelines. Farmers could equip them with sensors to fly over crops and detect which fields might need watering. And companies that make the drones are seeing plenty of dollar signs in the years ahead.

But the interest in these machines has gone beyond commercial aspects. Perhaps the biggest new market for the drones will be state and local police departments, who could employ the small drones in a variety of ways, such as looking for missing children or getting a look at a location before a SWAT team moves in.

All of this raises questions, though, in regard to how the uses of the drones will be controlled and limited. Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to develop safety regulations that will clear the way for routine domestic use of the unmanned aircraft within the next three years. But before drones are allowed to become a common sight in United States air space, Congress needs to look at much more than managing the new traffic in the skies. It should devote even more time on figuring out ways to ensure the drones and their capabilities aren't used for the wrong purposes.

A sizable percentage of the public already is worried about the potential for abuse by government agencies, including police, that would make use of the drones, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll released last week. The survey, taken in August, found that 36 percent either strongly or somewhat oppose the use of drones by police and a similar percentage were either extremely or very concerned that police use of drones would cause them to lose privacy.

That issue should be at the top of the list of Congress' concerns when addressing how drones should be used on American soil.

Already, citizens have become used to the notion that they could well end up on camera while they are in public. Many businesses have surveillance cameras to combat theft, and city governments -- including Huntington -- have employed them on streets as a crime-fighting tool.

But the expectation remains that citizens should have privacy in their homes. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution makes that clear, and the standard set forth in it should be the foundation for spelling out rules for the use of drones. That means the government -- including police agencies -- have no business snooping in or over our homes unless a judge has issued a warrant supported by probable cause of a crime.

That basic tenet of our rights in this country should remain firm, no matter what technological gains have been made.

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