(NaturalNews) Lawmakers and privacy advocates are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising number of drones used by federal, state and local governmental entities, an effort that is being coordinated through the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the nation's foremost anti-terrorist agency, DHS officials say drone use is accelerating among police and fire departments especially, in a bid to detect fires, radiation leaks and other potential security threats, but the increased use is not coming without some heartburn from privacy advocates. Once used exclusively to hunt militants and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, drones of all sizes are now being employed domestically in greater numbers.
The effort to broaden usage within the United States began in earnest a few years ago with an initiative launched by DHS to test the efficacy of the unmanned aircraft in a domestic capacity. In 2010, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department conducted a test in conjunction with DHS officials who used a drone to locate a device the size of a pack of cigarettes that was emitting a safe pulse of low-grade radiation that was hidden on a chaparral-covered hillside 40 miles north of the city, Los Angeles Times reported recently.
Within minutes, the small aerial surveillance platform's sensors located the hidden device.
"Think of Fukushima or some awful event like that," Cmdr. Bob Osborne, who hosted the tests as part of his job finding and buying new technology for his department, told the paper. "We wanted to know: Will it even be able to detect radiation? And it did."
That test was among the first of a $3.2 million DHS effort to expand the use of drones in cities around the country.
Since then, DHS has awarded millions in grants to at least 13 police and fire departments in larger cities to use the drones, but federal aviation restrictions, along with the difficulty in actually deploying the drones, has largely kept the project on the ground.
That will change beginning this year; however, following passage of legislation by Congress instructing the FAA to ease restrictions on domestic drone usage in U.S. airspace by 2015. And, as it stands now, the administration is prepared next year to issue a rule that will allow law enforcement and first responders to use UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles.
John Appleby, DHS program manager for the tests, said in a recent presentation that a center located at Fort Sill near Lawton, Okla., will test drones in "real-world situations where individual lives are in imminent danger."
That said, Appleby also noted that the department was drafting recommendations on how best to protect Americans' privacy.
'Step up to the plate'
That's good news for some privacy advocates, but others, like the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), are concerned nonetheless.
"This is putting the cart before the horse where DHS and other federal agencies are looking to put money toward drone use without looking at what it means for privacy and civil liberties," Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for EFF, told the Times.
Some lawmakers are equally concerned. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, has proposed legislation that would require police to tell the FAA how they planned to "minimize the collection and retention of data unrelated to the investigation of a crime." Republicans have also introduced privacy-oriented legislation.
It is noteworthy to mention that DHS itself has 10 Predator B drones, which it employs in a border enforcement capacity. And some lawmakers have used that to criticize the agency for not developing security and privacy regulations already.
"DHS seems either disinterested or unprepared to step up to the plate to address the proliferation of drones, the potential threats they pose to our national security, and the concerns of our citizens of how drones flying over our cities will be used, including protecting civil liberties of individuals under the Constitution," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told the Times after DHS refused to send an official to an oversight hearing he called regarding domestic use of drones.