(NaturalNews) The country is set to become a nation of drones in the coming years, as experts predict an explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles numbering in the tens of thousands that will literally turn the U.S. into the surveillance society futurists have warned about.
What's more, not all of these drones will be operated by government and police agencies; in fact, the vast majority will likely be in private hands. And Congress, as usual, has shirked its Legislative Branch duty to ensure the integrity of Americans' constitutional privacy protections by punting that responsibility to unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Aviation Administration.
Lawmakers have ordered the FAA to open up U.S. skies to drones by 2015, as well as devise the rules that will govern their use. Industry experts believe the decision will "see thousands of drones criss-crossing the sky within a few years," the Agence France Presse reported March 18.
Naturally, there are members of the Autobot Society - scores of mindless Kool-Aid drinkers who support only those provisions of the Constitution that serves their personal interests and beliefs - singing the praises of this impending privacy disaster. The point to using drones to help find people who are lost, tracking wildfires, identifying criminals, mapping inhospitable terrain, and other tasks that are currently being performed by other aerial assets as reason to surrender what's left of our privacy.
"The possibilities ... are endless," Ryan Calo, an expert in law and emerging technology at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, told AFP. "What are drones but flying smartphones, one app away from indispensable? We could see drones accompanying early morning joggers, taking sport, wildlife and other photography to a new level."
The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (AUVSI) - yes, there is an "association" now for drones - says proliferation of UAVs can "save money, time and lives" in civilian life. Then, of course, there is the employment angle: The association says massive drone growth will create 100,000 new jobs by 2025, adding billions of dollars to the economy.
Baptiste Tripard, the North American sales director of SenseFly, the Swiss drone maker of a UAV that can draw 3D maps or take hi-res photos, thinks the U.S. in fact could become the biggest drone market.
"The United States has the potential to become the largest market in the world, particularly in agriculture, where professionals are already used to working with high-tech instruments," Baptiste told AFP.
Since drones have become more widespread, civil rights groups and millions of Americans have expressed concern that they will be misused. One of the strongest voices sounding the alarm about massive drone use is the Electronic Freedom Foundation, or the EFF, which has warned that drones are capable - or will soon be capable - of intercepting wireless messages, monitoring up to 65 people and of carrying sophisticated camera technology that will enable it to identify writing on a carton of milk from nearly 60,000 feet (18,000 meters).
Currently, civilian police and federal agencies utilize drones to conduct surveillance of criminal suspects, along the U.S. borders and for related law enforcement roles. But opening up drones for widespread civilian use will lead to all sorts of potential privacy abuses, analysts warn.
"Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the government," the American Civil Liberties Union has warned.
Note to Congress: We need drone laws, not drone regulations
Think it can't happen? It already is.
Search engine giant Google was recently fined $7 million "after it emerged that vehicles snapping photos for its Street View images were also gathering information from private Wi-Fi hotspots," AFP reported.
In the meantime, the FAA has estimated that in excess of 7,000 small UAVs will take to American skies over the next five years. U.S. airspace is expected to be opened to drones by sometime after October 2015, following the results of testing in six locations. After that, the agency has been tasked with drawing up rules for drones.
The concern over drone usage is real, however, despite the braying approval of the Autobot Society and many in Congress. 30 states are working on legislation to limit use of drones over their skies; those efforts are backed by the ACLU, which believes states should ensure law enforcement is required to seek warrants for drone use and that they are prohibited from publishing images they capture or from being armed.