February 25, CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Warning that no steps have been taken on either the federal or state level to establish effective safeguards for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is reiterating his call to the governors and state legislatures of all fifty states to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens from police use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.
The use of drone technology by state and local law enforcement agencies has become the topic of national and international attention in recent weeks, especially since the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, using language drafted by The Rutherford Institute, became the first city in the nation to call for limits on the use of drone technology. The City of Seattle has since followed suit, with its mayor ordering the police department to abandon its plan to use drones altogether. Moreover, lawmakers in at least eleven states are considering legislation to restrict the use of drones. The Rutherford Institute has made model legislation available to the states which, if adopted, would prevent police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibit the government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions.
“Despite President Obama’s authorization of the use of drones domestically, no steps have been taken on either the federal or state level to establish effective safeguards for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights. Until this oversight is rectified, we are all in imminent danger,” said Whitehead. “No matter where one stands on the issue of drone use domestically, it is clear that we need to take a more cautious and well-reasoned approach on how drone technology will be implemented and what safeguards are necessary to ensure that Americans’ safety, privacy, and civil liberties are not jeopardized.”
The FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2012, authorized the use of drones domestically for a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate. Prior to this, drones had been confined to military use in the battlefields over Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet without proper safeguards, these drones, some of which are deceptively small and capable of videotaping the facial expressions of people on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, will usher in a new age of surveillance in American society. In addition to their surveillance capabilities, drones can also be equipped with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, tear gas, and tasers. At least 56 government agencies are now authorized to use drones, yet guidelines for government use of drone technology are sorely lacking. Many local police departments throughout the country, including in Florida, California, and Washington, have already begun implementing drone technology, often without regulation or oversight.
The Rutherford Institute has provided state legislatures with model legislation aimed at preventing police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibiting the government from using surveillance data acquired through the use of drones in criminal prosecutions. In calling on the states to establish effective safeguards for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights, Whitehead cautioned them against adopting legislation either too narrow in scope to have any serious impact on the widespread threat to privacy and civil liberties posed by drones or providing law enforcement officials with greater leeway to use drones conditioned only on their first acquiring a court-issued warrant.