Question: What do backscatter “naked” x-ray machines and unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, have in common?

Answer: They’re both technology originally used to control dangerous populations, such as convicted criminals or enemy combatants…that are now being used on regular American citizens on American soil.

We all see the banned-in-Europe backscatter x-ray machines in common use at American airports. Fortunately, we’re on track to phase them out this year in favor of less invasive technology.

But believe it or not, drones are already here, invading our skies and our privacy—without a warrant, without probable cause, and without our consent. And federal, state, and local government and corporate use of them is set to expand exponentially.

After the hoopla of our undeclared drone wars abroad, it’s clear that U.S. political leaders—including our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president and a regretfully sold-out, emasculated Congress—think drones don’t count. Not when they target strangers in Pakistan. Not when a 16-year-old American citizen is killed by one in Yemen. Not when bystanders are blown apart as blast-radius collateral damage.

And not when drones are deployed in American airspace.

I guess we could just be glad they’re not currently shooting at us. But reports indicate we could have as many as 30,000 drones operating in U.S. airspace in a matter of years. And that makes me a bit fidgety.

So why is this a problem, when we might not even realize they’re there? After all, there are some beneficial uses, such as in fighting forest fires.

Several reasons come to mind:

  • Drones are vulnerable to jammed signals, hacking, and malware, making accidents and misuse both possible and dangerous.
  • Drones can be adapted to intercept cell phone calls and online communications—a definite concern as government “data centers” expand in number and technological complexity.
  • Congress has ordered the FAA to significantly expand authorized drone air space by 2015—even as they fail to adequately define appropriate usage.
  • Inadequate testing of drone software for simultaneous operational use in busy American airspace over populated areas by multiple, uncoordinated agencies makes them a safety hazard. Yet there is a tremendous push by Congress to launch quickly.
  • Some drones can “see” through walls and ceilings, and may be outfitted with facial recognition technology. This renders it extremely difficult to maintain the traditionally sacrosanct nature of your home behind doors, or even true freedom of movement.
  • There is no way to guarantee Americans’ constitutional rights will be reasonably safeguarded, particularly when government agencies are already using them for covert verification of “compliance” with their policies—as when the EPA does warrantless fly-bys over farms and ranches.
  • The U.S. military is allowed to use their drones on American soil without a warrant and may keep photos and videos collected for up to 90 days, as long as they target groups and not specific individuals…despite domestic surveillance by our military being theoretically illegal under the Posse Comitatus Act. (With facial recognition software, this becomes an even more menacing prospect.)
  • The fact that it is easy to conduct impersonal, warrantless surveillance on American citizens doesn’t make it right.

In fact, the Constitution is quite clear that Americans have the “right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Those rights shouldn’t disappear because technology is the instrument, rather than a human being. Likewise, the Fourth Amendment requires that a warrant providing specific information about what is to be searched for, where, and why, be obtained prior to conducting the search.

Given the drones’ covert information-gathering capacity, there’s no guarantee those capabilities wouldn’t be regularly abused, despite proponents’ assurances to the contrary. Although it’s encouraging that at least a couple of Supreme Court decisions regarding the proper use of technology to monitor criminal activity (such as Katz v. United States) favored individuals’ constitutional rights, that wasn’t a recent decision and widespread governmental respect for the Constitution seems not to be currently in vogue.

Particularly given government reluctance to adequately define appropriate and intended usage, even as they push for rapid expansion, it seems foolish to blindly trust that they plan to use the technology to preserve American freedom. Rather, current government and military usage implies a will to chill our freedoms by heightening governmental control over the populace.

Thus, it’s wise to proactively safeguard our privacy and constitutional rights most carefully at state and local levels, rather than count on the trustworthiness and benevolence of those in official positions of power.

So what can we do?

First, check the status of drone privacy legislation in your state at:

If your state already has drone privacy legislation in works, express your support for it. Tell your state senators and representatives how important it is. Then blog it, tweet it, or write your local paper.

But if your state shows no drone privacy legislation currently in process, contact your state senators and representatives. Request they introduce a Privacy Protection Act that would greatly restrict or even ban usage of drones within state borders. Full text for model legislation is available here:

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