Majority of Southern California's airspace to be declared test range for drones

Monday, April 29, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: drones, us airspace, California

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(NaturalNews) Don't look now, Southern Californians, but the remaining shreds of your privacy rights - and they are threadbare already, to be sure - are about to vanish into the dustbin of history, if the "see everything all of the time" crowd gets its way.

"Business and military interests" are pressuring politicians and other officials throughout Southern California to allow all airspace to be declared a "test range" for unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to local reports, the drive is emanating from the San Diego Military Advisory Council and the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, both of which are touting the fact that more than 7,100 people are employed either directly or indirectly by drone manufacturers in San Diego County.

Drones - good for business, not so good for privacy

They are proposing a "test zone" that would extend from Edwards Air Force Base, which is located just north of Lancaster, west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The push for wide-open experimental observation of the entire region is being sold as providing an "economic boost" to the area's drone makers, who include some of the most influential defense and government contractors around, including Northrup Grumman in Rancho Bernardo and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway (the former has a large drone works near Lancaster, local reports noted).

The plea comes as the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been tasked with formulating the rules governing drone usage by 2015, is preparing to create a half-dozen test zones in the United States, ostensibly as part of a larger effort to seek out technology and operational advances required to integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace.

Perhaps adding to the Southern California push, the U.S. Navy - which has a large presence in and around San Diego - has already said it plans to base unmanned spy planes for the purposes of international intelligence gathering at Point Mugu, which is west of Malibu.

As they have consistently done, however, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups concerned with Americans' constitutional privacy protections are frantically attempting to point out that current privacy laws are entirely unsuitable for providing citizen protection against unreasonable and unwarranted surveillance.

"Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. 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 organization says on its website, adding that some drone manufacturers are even offering police departments the option of arming their drones.

"Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act," the ACLU says.

In March EPIC - the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that monitors electronic privacy issues - petitioned the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, to suspend its domestic drone surveillance program, pending the establishment of sound privacy protections.

Update the law before turning the drones loose

The petition states that "the use of drones for border surveillance presents substantial privacy and civil liberties concerns for millions of Americans across the country." It follows a revelation that some drones deployed by the federal agency are equipped with technology for signals interception and human identification.

EPIC was joined by 30 other organizations and more than 1,000 individuals.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate in March, experts from EPIC and other groups said in the age of drones, privacy laws needed a dramatic upgrade.

Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor, told senators that today's privacy statutes governing the use of drones date back to the 1980s - well before drones were developed for domestic and foreign use.

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