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Domestic drones not for everyone

By Walt Braun

No sooner was a satellite launched for intelligence or military purposes than some folks began worrying about being spied from the skies. That concern resurfaced with the introduction of drones, which have become a weapon of modern warfare as well as a surveillance tool.

So how soon will drones — otherwise called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — be cruising above American neighborhoods? Some of them apparently already are. Hank Krakowski, of the Federal Aviation Administration, told members of a Senate committee in 2010 that, “Right now, today, as we sit here, we have 251 certificates of authorization for unmanned aircraft, 140 of them are DOD (Department of Defense). We have not rejected or denied any DOD certificates in 2010, and we keep moving forward.”

That can be alarming to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories, but paranoia is premature. Yes, privacy advocates such the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Watchdog and the ACLU are keeping busy. Among other things, they’re seeking reassurance that President Barack Obama’s signature on a law instructs the FAA to create rules for the use of drones by law enforcement agencies and businesses. They note in their petition to the federal agency that drones pose a “unique threat” to privacy.

Actually, though the notion of paparazzi, stalkers or crime syndicates operating drones is troubling, drones pose a threat to more than personal privacy. Sophisticated drones can carry high-definition cameras and other equipment that can look through windows and even walls — abilities that could be abused by operators who have little respect for the U.S. Constitution.

The other threat, of course, involves terrorists. Not all drones are the size of a small plane. In fact, there is a gadget called a Switchblade that is launched from a tube about 2 feet long. It then spreads its wings and is guided to its destination by a person looking into a viewer the size of a shoebox. Indeed, in the wrong hands, even recreational model aircraft can be turned into weapons.

Such devices might never be used for hostile purposes, but security experts believe it is only a matter of time before terrorists deploy drones in this country and elsewhere against people and stationary targets. And while some sort of licensing program would be worthwhile, that wouldn’t likely impress terrorists.

As is the case with so many technological advances, our society and our legal system have some catching up to do regarding drones. Simply realizing that isn’t enough, but it’s a start. Trouble is, the longer we wait to act, the more vulnerable we’ll become.

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