Dismissive claims that drones do nothing more than helicopters and satellites already do are wildly misinformed
The use of drones by domestic US law enforcement agencies is growing rapidly, both in terms of numbers and types of usage. As a result, civil liberties and privacy groups led by the ACLU - while accepting that domestic drones are inevitable - have been devoting increasing efforts to publicizing their unique dangers and agitating for statutory limits. These efforts are being impeded by those who mock the idea that domestic drones pose unique dangers (often the same people who mock concern over their usage on foreign soil). This dismissive posture is grounded not only in soft authoritarianism (a religious-type faith in the Goodness of US political leaders and state power generally) but also ignorance over current drone capabilities, the ways drones are now being developed and marketed for domestic use, and the activities of the increasingly powerful domestic drone lobby. So it's quite worthwhile to lay out the key under-discussed facts shaping this issue.
I'm going to focus here most on domestic surveillance drones, but I want to say a few words about weaponized drones. The belief that weaponized drones won't be used on US soil is patently irrational. Of course they will be. It's not just likely but inevitable. Police departments are already speaking openly about how their drones "could be equipped to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun." The drone industry has already developed and is now aggressively marketing precisely such weaponized drones for domestic law enforcement use. It likely won't be in the form that has received the most media attention: the type of large Predator or Reaper drones that shoot Hellfire missiles which destroy homes and cars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and multiple other countries aimed at Muslims (although US law enforcement agencies already possess Predator drones and have used them over US soil for surveillance).
Instead, as I detailed in a 2012 examination of the drone industry's own promotional materials and reports to their shareholders, domestic weaponized drones will be much smaller and cheaper, as well as more agile - but just as lethal. The nation's leading manufacturer of small "unmanned aircraft systems" (UAS), used both for surveillance and attack purposes, is AeroVironment, Inc. (AV). Its 2011 Annual Report filed with the SEC repeatedly emphasizes that its business strategy depends upon expanding its market from foreign wars to domestic usage including law enforcement:
AV's annual report added: "Initial likely non-military users of small UAS include public safety organizations such as law enforcement agencies. . . ." These domestic marketing efforts are intensifying with the perception that US spending on foreign wars will decrease. As a February, 2013 CBS News report noted, focusing on AV's surveillance drones:
"Now, drones are headed off the battlefield. They're already coming your way.
"AeroVironment, the California company that sells the military something like 85 percent of its fleet, is marketing them now to public safety agencies."
Like many drone manufacturers, AV is now focused on drone products - such as the "Qube" - that are so small that they can be "transported in the trunk of a police vehicle or carried in a backpack" and assembled and deployed within a matter of minutes. One news report AV touts is headlined "Drone technology could be coming to a Police Department near you", which focuses on the Qube.
But another article prominently touted on AV's website describes the tiny UAS product dubbed the "Switchblade", which, says the article, is "the leading edge of what is likely to be the broader, even wholesale, weaponization of unmanned systems." The article creepily hails the Switchblade drone as "the ultimate assassin bug". That's because, as I wrote back in 2011, "it is controlled by the operator at the scene, and it worms its way around buildings and into small areas, sending its surveillance imagery to an i-Pad held by the operator, who can then direct the Switchblade to lunge toward and kill the target (hence the name) by exploding in his face." AV's website right now proudly touts a February, 2013 Defense News article describing how much the US Army loves the "Switchblade" and how it is preparing to purchase more. Time Magazine heralded this tiny drone weapon as "one of the best inventions of 2012", gushing: "the Switchblade drone can be carried into battle in a backpack. It's a kamikaze: the person controlling it uses a real-time video feed from the drone to crash it into a precise target - say, a sniper. Its tiny warhead detonates on impact."
What possible reason could someone identify as to why these small, portable weaponized UAS products will not imminently be used by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the US? They're designed to protect their users in dangerous situations and to enable a target to be more easily killed. Police agencies and the increasingly powerful drone industry will tout their utility in capturing and killing dangerous criminals and their ability to keep officers safe, and media reports will do the same. The handful of genuinely positive uses from drones will be endlessly touted to distract attention away from the dangers they pose.
One has to be incredibly naïve to think that these "assassin bugs" and other lethal drone products will not be widely used on US soil by an already para-militarized domestic police force. As Radley Balko's forthcoming book "Rise of the Warrior Cop" details, the primary trend in US law enforcement is what its title describes as "The Militarization of America's Police Forces". The history of domestic law enforcement particularly after 9/11 has been the importation of military techniques and weapons into domestic policing. It would be shocking if these weapons were not imminently used by domestic law enforcement agencies.
In contrast to weaponized drones, even the most naïve among us do not doubt the imminent proliferation of domestic surveillance drones. With little debate, they have already arrived. As the ACLU put it in their recent report: "US law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance." An LA Times article from last month reported that "federal authorities have stepped up efforts to license surveillance drones for law enforcement and other uses in US airspace" and that "the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it had issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since 2007, far more than were previously known." Moreover, the agency "has estimated 10,000 drones could be aloft five years later" and "local and state law enforcement agencies are expected to be among the largest customers."
Concerns about the proliferation of domestic surveillance drones are typically dismissed with the claim that they do nothing more than police helicopters and satellites already do. Such claims are completely misinformed. As the ACLU's 2011 comprehensive report on domestic drones explained: "Unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life."
Multiple attributes of surveillance drones make them uniquely threatening. Because they are so cheap and getting cheaper, huge numbers of them can be deployed to create ubiquitous surveillance in a way that helicopters or satellites never could. How this works can already been seen in Afghanistan, where the US military has dubbed its drone surveillance system "the Gorgon Stare", named after the "mythical Greek creature whose unblinking eyes turned to stone those who beheld them". That drone surveillance system is "able to scan an area the size of a small town" and "the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence that [can] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity". Boasted one US General: "Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything."
The NSA already maintains ubiquitous surveillance of electronic communications, but the Surveillance State faces serious limits on its ability to replicate that for physical surveillance. Drones easily overcome those barriers. As the ACLU report put it:
I've spoken previously about why a ubiquitous Surveillance State ushers in unique and deeply harmful effects on human behavior and a nation's political culture and won't repeat that here (here's the video (also embedded below) and the transcript of one speech where I focus on how that works). Suffice to say, as the ACLU explains in its domestic drone report: "routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America" because only drone technology enables such omnipresent physical surveillance.
Beyond that, the tiny size of surveillance drones enables them to reach places that helicopters obviously cannot, and to do so without detection. They can remain in the sky, hovering over a single place, for up to 20 hours, a duration that is always increasing - obviously far more than manned helicopters can achieve. As AV's own report put it (see page 11), their hovering capability also means they can surveil a single spot for much longer than many military satellites, most of which move with the earth's rotation (the few satellites that remain fixed "operate nearly 25,000 miles from the surface of the earth, therefore limiting the bandwidth they can provide and requiring relatively larger, higher power ground stations"). In sum, surveillance drones enable a pervasive, stealth and constantly hovering Surveillance State that is now well beyond the technological and financial abilities of law enforcement agencies.
One significant reason why this proliferation of domestic drones has become so likely is the emergence of a powerful drone lobby. I detailed some of how that lobby is functioning here, so will simply note this passage from a recent report from the ACLU of Iowa on its attempts to persuade legislators to enact statutory limits on the use of domestic drones:
"Drones have their own trade group, the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International, which includes some of the nation's leading aerospace companies. And Congress now has 'drone caucuses' in both the Senate and House."
Howie Klein has been one of the few people focusing on the massive amounts of money from the drone industry now flowing into the coffers of key Congressional members from both parties in this "drone caucus". Suffice to say, there is an enormous profit to be made from exploiting the domestic drone market, and as usual, that factor is thus far driving the (basically nonexistent) political response to these threats.
What is most often ignored by drone proponents, or those who scoff at anti-drone activism, are the unique features of drones: the way they enable more warfare, more aggression, and more surveillance. Drones make war more likely precisely because they entail so little risk to the war-making country. Similarly, while the propensity of drones to kill innocent people receives the bulk of media attention, the way in which drones psychologically terrorize the population - simply by constantly hovering over them: unseen but heard - is usually ignored, because it's not happening in the US, so few people care (see this AP report from yesterday on how the increasing use of drone attacks in Afghanistan is truly terrorizing local villagers). It remains to be seen how Americans will react to drones constantly hovering over their homes and their childrens' schools, though by that point, their presence will be so institutionalized that it will be likely be too late to stop.
Notably, this may be one area where an actual bipartisan/trans-partisan alliance can meaningfully emerge, as most advocates working on these issues with whom I've spoken say that libertarian-minded GOP state legislators have been as responsive as more left-wing Democratic ones in working to impose some limits. One bill now pending in Congress would prohibit the use of surveillance drones on US soil in the absence of a specific search warrant, and has bipartisan support.
Only the most authoritarian among us will be incapable of understanding the multiple dangers posed by a domestic drone regime (particularly when their party is in control of the government and they are incapable of perceiving threats from increased state police power). But the proliferation of domestic drones affords a real opportunity to forge an enduring coalition in defense of core privacy and other rights that transcends partisan allegiance, by working toward meaningful limits on their use. Making people aware of exactly what these unique threats are from a domestic drone regime is the key first step in constructing that coalition.