Police drones redefine civil liberty

Privacy's new threat
By EDITORIAL  |  August 8, 2012


The War on Terrorism — or whatever name it goes by today — has not been kind to the freedom in whose name it dispenses death.

The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and police confiscation of social media may not stir the mass of Americans to howls of outrage, but these acts do corrode the Constitution and compromise our civil liberties. Ironic, yes?

There is, however, nothing ironic about the prospect of the federal, state, and local governments using the unmanned drones now ubiquitous in the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, to monitor and spy on Americans.

Earlier this year, the Electronic Freedom Foundation reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows drones to fly in the airspace over 20 states. (See map, at right.) Sixty organizations — including the military, federal agencies, universities, and local police departments — have the okay to deploy drones.

While these details are relatively new, the fact that domestic law enforcement, especially the Department of Homeland Security, has been piloting drones is several years old.

Now comes the news that a citizen has been apprehended and arrested thanks to the flight of an almost silent spy machine, the Draganflyer X6 surveillance drone, which resembles a high-tech mosquito. The individual in question, Rodney Brossart, lives with his family and raises cattle on a 3000-acre ranch in Lakota, North Dakota.

Brossart is not a mainstream American. He's a "sovereignist," a go-it-aloner who views himself as the only recognized authority on his particular patch of the golden plains.

A dispute over cattle rights led to an armed showdown with authorities. After a 16-hour stalemate, the locals teamed up with Homeland Security and flushed out Brossart at a moment when he was unarmed.

As these affairs go, it could have been worse. There were no snipers as there were at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. (Three dead.) No conflagration as the one in Waco, Texas. (Eighty-six dead.) But the key missing ingredient in the Brossart case is a warrant, the prior authorization for police to undertake a certain action.

A warrant is a license for police to engage in behavior that is out of the ordinary: searching a private home, tapping a telephone, arresting someone and thus depriving him or her of their liberty.

But a warrant is more than a flimsy piece of paper. It is, in fact, a powerful document. It allows authorities to do something to someone else that they cannot do to you.

In the course of suspending the specific rights of an individual in what are supposed to be carefully prescribed circumstances, a warrant effectively affirms the rights of the many.

As things now stand, thanks to the US Supreme Court, police can gather evidence from helicopters without a warrant.

So there is a precedent, of sorts, in the Brossart case. But it's a mighty scary one.

Drones are massively more efficient than helicopters. They are a tool, a weapon of an entirely higher magnitude. They are almost silent, more maneuverable, and can be equipped with cameras and digital- and sound-gathering devices that obliterate most concepts of privacy.

Drones can certainly be used to capture law breakers, but they can be just as easily deployed against lawful political demonstrations or indeed any public gathering — as they most certainly will be used at the upcoming national political conventions.

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