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The Undercooked Debate on Domestic Drones

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"Today, lawmakers worldwide are sleepwalking through a privacy and security crisis. How many secure sites have to be compromised before we wake up to the full challenges posed by commercial and law enforcement UAVs – or, in common parlance, by drones?" writes Jane Harman.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington this week, I wonder if he and President Obama will commiserate over the drones invading their personal space. Last week, a lightly radioactive drone was found on the roof of the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo; last January, an employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency accidentally crashed his personal UAV on the White House lawn. Neither incident was considered a serious threat, but both are gravely concerning. Even more concerning are the close calls commercial pilots are reporting with drones near airports, like Tuesday’s incident at Dallas Love Field in which a Virgin America pilot reported seeing a quadcopter drone ascending as his plane descended for landing.

Today, lawmakers worldwide are sleepwalking through a privacy and security crisis. How many secure sites have to be compromised before we wake up to the full challenges posed by commercial and law enforcement UAVs – or, in common parlance, by drones?

The Federal Aviation Administration unveiled rules this February that would make it much easier to operate drones in the United States: for law enforcement agencies conducting surveillance, for commercial firms, and for private individuals. Make no mistake: eventually, the last two groups could include bad actors, even terrorists. It’s hard to overstate how undercooked the debate on this future is. The stakes are high; our privacy and our security are at risk.

The implications for privacy and surveillance are huge. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that tracking a car using an attached GPS beacon, without a warrant, is unconstitutional. But what if police use a roving drone instead? That debate is raging in Virginia now, which two years ago imposed a two-year moratorium on warrantless drone surveillance. That’s where most of the regulatory action is happening on this issue: in concerned states and municipalities across the country. At the federal level, we have a leadership vacuum. With a technological revolution on its way, Washington is AWOL. How do you square this new world with our Constitution?  As Brookings Institution senior fellow John Villasenor said in 2012, “The FAA, I would imagine, has more aviation lawyers than Fourth Amendment constitutional lawyers.”

Then there are the new security challenges. Authorities have a poor track record detecting small aircraft that fly where they shouldn’t. In 2010, a Mexican government drone went down in an El Paso backyard; though NORAD later said it had been tracking the plane, local officials seem to have been taken entirely by surprise. This month, a postal employee flew a (manned) gyrocopter to Capitol Hill through some of the most restricted airspace in the country. Incidents like these severely undermine confidence in our preparedness. One day, one of the craft slipping under our radar will do us harm. 

Iran has poured funds into developing a “suicide drone” – essentially a cheap, nimble cruise missile. It’s not hard to imagine terrorists building do-it-yourself versions of the same device, a pipe bomb or pressure cooker strapped to a small UAV. This is a concern others have raised for years, but it took a drone landing feet from the White House for the Secret Service to start trying out jamming technology – an issue they should have been thinking about years ago. Many drone countermeasures are still primitive; some of the solutions are worse than the problem. Popular Science advised the White House, “Simple netting, used often at drone trade shows to keep small drones confident to their exhibitions, could also work, if the President wanted to live inside a net all the time.”

We need a serious policy response that engages Congress; federal, state, and local government – and the private sector. This issue is too big for the FAA, too urgent to postpone, and too important to leave off the national agenda. Lately, Congress has devoted impressive attention to new risks in cyberspace. It should put at least as much effort into understanding drones. One option is to encourage commercial firms—through either voluntary or mandatory standards—to hardwire restrictions into the drones they build and sell. Some companies already program their drones to stay out of restricted airspace and away from sensitive sites. Those efforts need a push and a signal boost from government.

Two years ago, a resident of Deer Trail, Colorado, proposed that the town issue hunting licenses and bounties for downing drones. In Montana last year, one Congressional candidate ran an ad in which he takes aim at a UAV with a rifle.

I have to hope we can do better than that – and fast.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Hill.

About the Author

 Jane Harman image

Jane Harman

Distinguished Fellow and President Emerita, Wilson Center

Jane Harman, Distinguished Fellow and President Emerita, Wilson Center, is an internationally recognized authority on U.S. and global security issues, foreign relations and lawmaking. A native of Los Angeles and a public-school graduate, she went on to become a nine-term member of Congress, serving decades on the major security committees in the House of Representatives. Drawing upon a career that has included service as President Carter’s Secretary of the Cabinet and hundreds of diplomatic missions to foreign countries, Harman holds posts on nearly a dozen governmental and non-governmental advisory boards and commissions.

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