Change drones on
A column below discusses the inevitability of change — in western Colorado and elsewhere — and how many people are reluctant to accept it.
Trepidation is certainly understandable regarding the changes that are coming with the brave new world of unmanned drones — not just missile attacks on terrorist hideouts in the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, but a variety of drone uses in our own backyard.
An article by Paul Shockley in Sunday’s edition of The Daily Sentinel explained that the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department recently developed formal policies for the use of its fixed-wing drone, which it has had as an operational tool for four years.
We applaud the Sheriff’s Department for developing those policies, and especially for recognizing that any surveillance conducted with the drone must meet the same requirements for complying with the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against unlawful searches as any ground-based surveillance.
Most of the time, the Sheriff’s Department drone is used for far more mundane projects, such as photographing and mapping the county landfill or a federally owned gravel pit. It has also been used to assist in search and rescue operations.
Those are among the upsides of drone power, the very sorts of purposes for which we hope unmanned drones will be used. Other drones, more akin to helicopters than airplanes, could be used to search burning buildings for victims or to look for criminal suspects believed to be hidden in dangerous locations.
However, drones are no longer limited to the military or law enforcement. For $300 or so, you can have one of your own, a hovering drone, complete with video cameras. And there are, as yet, very few limits on how you may use it.
Is that hot girl down the block sunbathing in her backyard? What’s to prevent you from a little low-altitude photography?
Do you think your neighbor is up to something he shouldn’t be? How about a little drone snooping, peeking in his windows?
There are far worse abuses we can imagine, but we’ll not outline those sorts of ideas here. We’re not arguing that personal drones should be banned. They can be fun and useful. But it’s inevitable that new laws will be required to delineate the limits on such use.
And that’s true for public as well as private drones. Despite the newly released policies for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department drone, it’s not clear that all law enforcement agencies have been or will be so mindful of people’s privacy or Fourth Amendment rights when it comes to using their drones.
Moreover, the Obama administration had to be reminded of those rights regarding the targeting of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, either here or abroad. After much complaining by members of Congress and advocacy groups, the administration finally said it would not use drones to attack U.S. citizens on foreign soil except for the threat of immediate violence.
All of this can be both frightening and exciting. Drones can be employed in many useful ways, from recreation to tracking terrorists. But they will also be abused. And we will have to develop clear rules to prevent and punish such abuses.