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30,000 drones in American skies, civil liberties in jeopardy

By Lynn Herrmann     Feb 13, 2012 in Politics
Washington - A bill passed last week allocating more than $63 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration would increase the existence of drones in civilian airspace across America and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
As America’s drone war begins a new surge in Pakistan, the U.S. House and Senate have both approved the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act bill, a bill which would pressure the FAA to weaken rules currently in place on domestic drone authority, and allow American skies to be filled with tens of thousands of drones.
If the new bill becomes law, up to 30,000 drones could by flying in U.S. airspace by decade’s end. The Senate passed the bill by a 75-20 margin. Civil liberties groups have spoken out on the measure, stating the new legislation offers no restrictions on drone surveillance operations by police and federal agencies and could put us on track toward a “surveillance society.”
As drone technology rapidly advances, America’s law enforcement community is eager to use these robotic machines in their daily operations, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes
Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft. This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.
Details in the new drone bill are extensive. Among them, the bill would require the FAA to expedite and simplify its drone operation permission process to government agencies, to be completed within 90 days. The FAA is currently considering a proposed set of regulations alleviating drone rules, set to be released this spring.
The operation of any drone weighing 4.4 pounds or less would require the FAA’s approval to “a government public safety agency,” as long as certain parameters are heeded (sight lines, daytime operation, operation below 400 feet in altitude, and operated only in safe airspace.)
Also included in the new measure is a requirement the FAA produce a comprehensive plan “to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,” Common Dreams reports.
In this instance, “civil” drones applies to those operated in the private sector, but as things currently stand, permission to operate a drone is all but impossible for a non-government entity, save for hobbyists. Drone industry groups, along with their congressional backers, consider this as a potential source of income. The bill requires the FAA’s plan allow the integration of drones into U.S. airspace “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.
The FAA has been given nine months to produce the plan. Additionally, it must develop a five-year “roadmap for the introduction” of these civil drones in national airspace.
The bill would also require the FAA’s final ruling, within 18 month of the comprehensive plan’s submission, “that will allow” civil operation of drones weighing under 55 pounds in U.S. airspace along with a proposed ruling for conducting the plan.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, has brought a lawsuit against the federal government requesting the FAA release records on agencies, almost 300 of them, carrying authorization for domestic drone operations.
Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with EFF told Talking Points Memo the new drone bill increases the importance of the lawsuit. “I think the fact that Congress is pressuring the FAA to expand its UAS program through the FAA Reauthorization Act only reinforces the need for these records,” she noted. “It’s important that we learn more about how the federal government and state and local law enforcement agencies are already using UASs before we expand their use further. The privacy concerns posed by the use of drones for domestic surveillance are too great to excuse the FAA’s lack of transparency on this issue."
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