With our wars winding down and the domestic use of drones ramping up, the multibillion-dollar industry wants to upgrade its image as makers of assassins in the sky.
After all, these "unmanned aerial vehicles" can also play important roles as sophisticated map makers, aerial photographers, search and rescue aids and scientific tools.
Privacy advocates, however, are gravely concerned about another obvious domestic use: midair snoop.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed a law that directs the Federal Aviation Administration to create a set of rules that clears the way for more use of drones by businesses and law enforcement. For years, the FAA has tightly restricted their use, for fear the vehicles could collide with aircraft, a consideration that is sure to be the focus of the agency's study of the matter.
But the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center quickly issued a petition calling on the FAA to examine and address drones' "unique threat" to privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Watchdog and dozens of other groups signed on.
Technically, unmanned aerial vehicles (some quibble with the word drone) are remote or autonomously controlled aircraft, a broad category that can encompass military-grade weapons as well as small do-it-yourself helicopters with cameras.
"They raise the prospect of bringing surveillance to a whole new level," said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU.
Among other things, the letter noted that sophisticated drones can track up to 65 targets across 65 square miles. They can also carry high-definition cameras, heat sensors, automated license-plate readers and, eventually, facial recognition technology.
The petition said that law enforcement agencies and private detectives have already begun to use them, and that paparazzi, criminals and stalkers could be next. It raised particular concerns about government use of drones, which make persistent surveillance cheap and enable law enforcement to stare through the windows and even walls that used to represent private domains.
Ryan Calo, director of privacy at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, worries that drones could nudge us closer to a surveillance state, where police shift from responding to real crimes to indiscriminately hunting for infractions and suspicious behavior.
"I'm worried about the next phase of policing that's completely automated," he said.
Ben Gielow, general counsel at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, acknowledges that the industry is in need of repositioning as it moves into the non-military sphere. He said the Virginia trade group is planning an education campaign aimed at consumers and regulators.
He argues, however, that there's a legal framework for dealing with the privacy concerns. Peeping Tom and other privacy laws restrict drones from spying into windows. In addition, Gielow said, Supreme Court cases have established that police need warrants for helicopter surveillance under certain conditions.
Addressing these concerns is important, but what shouldn't get lost in the debate are the many promising uses of drones, said Stephen Morris, president of the MLB Co., a Mountain View company that manufacturers unmanned aerial vehicles.
Drones can be used for crop dusting, disaster response, monitoring greenhouse gases, spotting critical infrastructure problems, tracking wildlife populations, fighting fires and many other tasks that might subject humans to harm.
"They're robots," Morris said. "They do the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs really well, where you don't have or want a manned system."
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(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)