Drones: The Ultimate Stalkers

A hexacopter flown by Daniel Garate, an aerial photographer, during his demonstration at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif., Feb. 3, 2012. (Photo: J. Emilio Flores / The New York Times)A hexacopter flown by Daniel Garate, an aerial photographer, during his demonstration at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif., Feb. 3, 2012. (Photo: J. Emilio Flores / The New York Times)Imagine you’re being stalked from the sky. Every time you go in or out of any building, it’s recorded. Everybody you talk with. Everyplace you drive or take public transportation. Your sky-stalker can see through your windows, read your lips, and, using infrared cameras, can even see if you’ve lit a cigarette — of any type.

Shouldn’t this be illegal?

When Larisa Oleynik, star of “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” found she had a stalker, she got a restraining order. But if her stalker had been the police, and they were doing it with a drone, right now there are virtually no laws or regulations that would protect her. Or you.

Being concerned about such things is genuinely all-American.

You could say that our privacy concerns started with George Orwell (who, ironically, was British) and the publication of his book “1984,” but in reality the modern-day American concern about government snooping into our lives goes back before the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, back before George Washington was president but after the Revolutionary War, was living in Paris and communicated in code with his protégé, James Madison, about their Federalist political enemies.

Jefferson did it again when he became President in 1801, developing an even more elaborate code to communicate with his most trusted aide, Meriwether Lewis. Their concern was which military officers, mostly leftovers from the John Adams administration, might be reading their mail or interrogating White House servants because those officers were thinking of pulling a military coup to overthrow the Jefferson administration.

The result was that Jefferson, on Lewis’s suggestion, fired two-thirds of all the commissioned officers and cut the size of the Army by over 80 percent.

Fast forward to today. Police helicopters, police trucks that can use infrared to see inside your house, and GPS units cops can attach to you car. In every case there’s a legitimate police use for these technologies, as well as an incredible potential for abuse.

The Fourth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights that Jefferson demanded Madison put into the Constitution as the price of getting Virginia’s ratification, is one sentence long. It says:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In other words, they can’t spy on you — on you, personally — unless they have enough proof to bring before a judge that you’re up to something that’s probably illegal.

In the case of the police helicopters, trucks, GPS units, and phone taps, to some extent both state governments, Congress, and the Supreme Court have brought their use into at least a marginal compliance with the Fourth Amendment.

Not so with drones. At least yet.

And that’s why the City of Charlottesville, Virginia — a stone’s throw from Thomas Jefferson’s home — did a beautiful thing this week in passing a resolution calling for a ban, for the moment, on drones in their skies.

The Rutherford Institute proposed the first draft of what ultimately became the resolution that was promoted by the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice. It included language that said:

WHEREAS, the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia have thus far failed to provide reasonable legal restrictions on the use of drones within the United States; and

“WHEREAS, police departments throughout the country have begun implementing drone technology absent any guidance or guidelines from law makers…” there should be at two-year moratorium on using information obtained from them, or on weaponizing them.

As David Swanson notes in his blog on the CCPJ site, “without proper safeguards, these drones, some of which are deceptively small and capable of videotaping the facial expressions of people on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, will usher in a new age of surveillance in American society. Not even those indoors, in the privacy of their homes, will be safe from these aerial spies, which can be equipped with technology capable of peering through walls.”

And that doesn’t even include the capability of these police drones to be weapon-equipped, from bullets to nerve gas. Or their ability to be hacked, or their data streams to be hijacked by malicious corporations, weird stalkers, or foreign governments.

Nobody is saying there’s no legitimate place for drones in police work in America. They’re a heck of a lot cheaper than the helicopter that famously followed OJ Simpson’s car, for example. At the most basic level, they’re just an extension of already-existing and already-used technology.

And yet, as with any new technology — think email, for example, or text-messages — we need to make sure it’s used in a way that complies with the Fourth Amendment and respects our individual rights to privacy.

And that’s why it’s way beyond time to have a national conversation about drones over US skies. With the help of the CCPJ, Charlottesville has taken a great first step in starting that national dialog. Oregon, for example, has started a similar debate, with legislation introduced by both Democrats and Republicans concerned about individual privacy rights.

Let’s all work for solid legislative restrictions on police use of these drones so that they help legitimate police work while respecting the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of us all.