NYTimes.com | A measure passed by the Senate on Monday that would require the Federal Aviation Administration to give unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, expanded access to airways in the United States has civil liberties organizations fuming.
Under the measure, the drones, similar to those used to track Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, would share airspace with conventional planes by Sept. 30, 2015. Until now, the F.A.A. has sought limits on the use of drones in national airspace because of concerns that the devices did not have sufficient safety mechanisms to prevent midair collisions.
But the F.A.A. bill would sharply curtail those limits, and civil liberties groups are in an uproar over potential privacy concerns posed by the drones – some of which are as small as a hummingbird and can be equipped with infrared and video cameras as well as radar.
“Our main concern is that this technology is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, in a telephone interview. “We’d like to see rules put in place.”
Mr. Stanley is the co-author of a Dec. 15 report calling for drones not to be deployed unless the government has obtained a warrant and “there are grounds to believe that they will collect evidence on a specific crime.” Americans “don’t want to have to worry that every time we step out our front door that we are going to be tracked,” he said.
The legislation is part of a larger bill authorizing $63.4 billion in financing over four years for the F.A.A. that was passed by the House on Friday and is headed to President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law.
The aircraft, which can be controlled by remote or operate on their own, are already being used for surveillance by some local and state law enforcement authorities.
United States Customs and Border Protection uses drones to patrol the nation’s borders, and authorities in Texas have used them in drug investigations.
“Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft,” Mr. Stanley wrote on the A.C.L.U.’s blog. “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.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties and digital-rights group in San Francisco, is also apprehensive about the impact of drones on privacy. The foundation filed a lawsuit last month against the United States Department of Transportation, demanding that the agency release information on which entities have been given authorization to use drone aircraft and why.
Any public entity – like law enforcement agencies or state universities – seeking to fly unmanned aerial vehicles at a height above 400 feet must obtain certification from the F.A.A. (which is part of the Transportation Department). The government has not yet publicly released a comprehensive list of the entities holding these certifications, but the F.A.A. acknowledged that it had issued hundreds of such authorizations by the end of 2010.
Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the foundation, said after the bill’s passage, “I think now more than ever the public is entitled to see the records we are suing the F.A.A. to get.”
Proponents of drone technology maintain that it has become useful in criminal investigations and immigrations enforcement, offering a cheaper and less obtrusive alternative to helicopters. Customs and Border Patrol, for example, says on its Web site that it has achieved “unprecedented success in homeland security, law enforcement and in support of disaster relief efforts” with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
But Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy in Washington and a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, expressed concerns about safety as well as privacy.
“The use of drones domestically raises a whole range of questions that have hardly been asked, let alone answered,” Mr. Aftergood said in an e-mail. “What is the probable impact of drone operations on personal privacy? What are the worst-case safety consequences of a drone failure? What is the current and future role of drones in domestic military operations?”
When asked about the drone measure, Laura Brown, an F.A.A. spokeswoman, said, “This is something we are not really in a position to comment on right now.”