Leading the State-By-State Fight Over Drones - We're Watching You Week

Photo courtesy of Groupuscule.

Even to the most apathetic, aerial drones are perhaps best remembered as an organ of the military, or at least, a distinct tool of foreign policy. Controversial for their use by the current administration to target enemies both foreign and domestic, not to mention being marginally defended by its creator and with little oversight, Americans don’t think of drones as part of their daily lives.

Yet, for an increasing number of generally purple and electorally contentious states across the map, citizens are confronting the threatening presence of surveillance drones being considered by their state legislatures. Since the first American was apprehended, on US soil that is, with the help of police-operated predator drones in December 2011, increased public awareness (and rejection) of domestic drone use has lead to the rise of the NoDronesNetwork on social media, with much of the group’s activity circulating in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Those three states and 34 others stand as competitors over potentially booming demand for surveillance, particularly for law enforcement and safety means. The lucky winner of the military industrial supply will be selected through a contest held by the Federal Aviation Administration and become host for 12 new test sites for homegrown drones.

The aim of these tests, say officials, is to determine whether such drones can efficiently occupy the same airspace as everyday commercial flights, small aircraft, and helicopter traffic.

Aside from bragging rights, the real reason for why all these states lined up to pick a fight with a sternly and continuously anti-government public is much more basic.

“It’s the chance to get in on the ground floor of what may be the next big business,” Peter Singer, robotics expert at the Brookings Institution, told Fox News.

“The states competing hope it might make them the robotics equivalent of Detroit for automobiles in the 20th century or Silicon Valley for computers,” he continued, implying that these states were vying to be home to the next General Motors of aerial drones.

Despite protests all over the country, a vast majority of states are still in pursuit of the coveted FAA prize. At the grassroots, the FAA recently released a list of 81 police departments and other profit-based entities across the country that have applied for permission to fly drones in the US. What is remarkable is the number of Universities and establishments of higher learning that number among the latter: California State, Cornell, Kansas State, Penn State, and the University Arizona.

That last of whom was found relaying contracts between several drone manufacturers. Such seedy dealings were uncovered thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by MuckRock, a research service for journalists comprised of legal professionals experienced in filing such laborious requests.

Conspirator of MuckRock in the state-by-state fight against domestic drones is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a member-supported defense fund and public interest organization who filed the original FOI request against the FAA to uncover the 81 organizations requesting permission to use aerial drones.

According to Parker Higgins, a free culture activist working with the EFF, a principle reason for why the increase of law enforcement interest such devices is that since the military is drawing down drone attacks, defense contractors have been courting police departments to help keep up sales.

To help keep further track of authorities’ interest in domestic drones, MuckRock and the EFF publish an annual index of all known domestic use of drones, appropriately titled as the Drone Census. The census is compiled from citizen FOI requests of their local police departments, a method adopted after the foundation filed a lawsuit against the FAA for not responding quickly enough to their demands for transparency.

In his interactions with everyday Americans at town hall meetings about the issue, Higgins tells BTR that the crowd showing up to make their views known about drones do not consist of the average fringe conspiracy nuts.

“Everytime we speak about this publicly, we’ve got a large group of people that are really interested in knowing about this and knowing about the privacy implications… The striking thing is the number of people who show up and [how their beliefs span] across the political spectrum,” explains Higgins.

“Working in the privacy community, I’m used to a certain corner of a paranoid world that I belong in,” he continues. “But this goes beyond that and this is regular citizens who are just concerned about this level of government oversight.”

Despite the vocal and energized opposition to drones in states, Higgins admits its an uphill battle trying to dissuade state legislatures and police departments from playing Big Brother from the skies. However, he sites a number of states that have considered (and some cases passed) some kind of limitation on possible aerial drone surveillance, be it an outright statewide ban or lesser legal barrier.

Though as poor a public image as aerial drones may have in 2013, Higgins – a passionate hobbyist of aerial photography – does see the potential to use these devices for private, otherwise harmless use. In his work reaching out to communities about drones, he has come across drone enthusiasts, which he describes as an evolved version of the old ‘remote control airplanes’ crowd.

There are some instances where these pursuits have stepped on issues of trespassing on property or other more personal matters of privacy, but Higgins emphasizes concerns over these issues differs greatly from the possible constitutional implications that drones could hold for police efforts.

Considering their less harmful potentials, flying drones are also considered incredibly useful new tools in search and rescue efforts, and an incredibly efficient method of delivering beer at music festivals. Yet, as with so much of modern technology, aerial drones represent a limitless future that is as promising as it is threatening, depending on the hands at the controls.