Quote: WASHINGTON — Targeted killings have made drones controversial, but a new class of tiny aircraft in the United States — cheap, able and ubiquitous — could engage in targeted snooping that existing laws are inadequate to address, witnesses and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a hearing on Wednesday.
The drones, or unmanned aerial systems, have already helped the police find missing people and county planners measure the growth of a landfill. But they could also be used by drug dealers, pedophiles and nosy neighbors, the witnesses and a senator said.
Surveillance by government is limited by the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and snooping by corporations and individuals is covered by privacy law and common law. But these were not written with drones in mind. The issue has taken on new urgency as the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to set forth rules for drones’ commercial use and as prices for the aircraft drop. Many states are considering legislation, but Congress is only beginning to consider the problem.
“There’s very little in American privacy law that would limit the use of drones for surveillance,” said one witness, Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law. “Drones drive down the cost of surveillance considerably. We worry that the incidence of surveillance will go up.”
But Benjamin Miller, of the sheriff’s office in Mesa County, Colo., who flies a two-pound, battery-powered six-rotor helicopter drone that he placed on the table in front of him, said his department had used a drone equipped with a thermal camera to investigate arson at a historic church, which helped firefighters identify hot spots and determine which direction the fire had traveled through the building. The sheriff’s office also used a drone for Mesa County’s annual survey of the landfill where it buries its garbage (to determine how quickly it is filling up), for about $200. The usual cost was nearly $10,000, Mr. Miller said.
The sheriff’s office operates its drones under a permit from the F.A.A., which requires that the aircraft stay under 400 feet and fly only in daylight. The rules are similar to the ones for radio-controlled model airplanes, which the drones resemble, although they have refinements like sophisticated autopilots, GPS navigation systems and stabilized cameras. Use of such drones by police departments and government agencies is still extremely limited. And commercial use — that is, a company flying a drone and being paid for it — is not yet legal.
The F.A.A. is to have rules in place for commercial use, including how to prevent collisions, by September 2015. But already there are thousands of drones in the nation’s skies.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/us/pol....html?_r=0