Municipal police departments could soon start using aerial drones, inspired by the ones tracking terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, to fight drug dealing and other commonplace crimes, The Washington Post reported last week. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) already fly along the U.S.-Mexico border to spot illegal immigrants, but it's still "exceedingly rare" for local police to use them. That could change by 2013, as new federal guidelines let police routinely fly lightweight, unarmed drones as high as 400 feet above ground, where they can go largely unnoticed on the street. Advocates say this will help find missing kids, prevent traffic jams, and fight crime. But the Post says their use is also likely to spark a debate about whether the technology violates the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Are drones too invasive for everyday use? (Watch a CNN report about the technology)
People may never get used to this: Constitutional challenges may be brought against this technology, says Joseph J. Vacek, an aviation profesor, as quoted by The Washington Post. But "where I see the challenge is the social norm." Despite our camera-laden society, "most people are not okay with constant watching." The drone's "hover-and-stare capability" is high, and when it's "used to its maximum potential," it "will probably ruffle a lot of civic feathers."
"Domestic use of aerial drones by law enforcement likely to prompt privacy debate"
Police have to respect our privacy: In theory, drones could watch over your "weekend BBQ" with high-resolution, infrared, and thermal-imaging cameras, say the editors of SodaHead News. So the American Civil Liberties Union is understandably worried this potentially "valuable tool" could be misused. Police have to obtain a warrant before peeking into your backyard. But when in public, remember, officers might be able to see you even if you can't see them.
"Do you want the police to use drones?"
Criminals are the ones who should be scared: "This is great" — if you're a cop, says Adrian Chen at Gawker. One sheriff's deputy tells the Post that drones are the best thing to come along since the Taser. Given the Taser's mixed reputation, that's unsettling, but crooks are the ones who should really be worried as we inch toward an "Orwellian dystopia." Once the skies are filled with police drones, "it's gonna be a lot harder to get away."
Aerial drones: Coming to a police department near you