Drones! Drones! Everywhere!

Americans don’t like to be watched.

We rail against speeders and people who rush through yellow lights at the precise moment they turn red, but we hate it when police set up automatic photo radar machines to catch us in the act.

Utahns have stood firm against photo radar. This story out of Surprise, Ariz., tells of how communities that have such systems still deal with controversy surrounding their use. It may soon seem like child’s play.

Just wait until private groups with political agendas begin using drones.

You may not have to wait long. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has announced it wants to use drones to keep an eye on hunters and fishers. The group says it wants to make sure these folks stay within the letter of the law. It will use eight-rotored helicopter drones to seek out instances of “hunters drinking while in possession of a firearm, maiming animals for fun (leading to possible prosecution on animal cruelty counts), and using locally-forbidden hunting or fishing enhancements such as spotlights and speed lures,” according to a report on this blog.

Information gathered will be turned over to police who, depending on where these alleged violations occur, may or may not do anything.

Their mission won’t be that much different from groups planning to use drones in India and elsewhere to catch poachers or endangered or protected species, the one difference being that those may actually garner support from Americans far away.

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This is one subject about which existing laws are woefully inadequate to deal.

At a recent Senate hearing on drones, Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law said, “There’s very little in American privacy law that would limit the use of drones for surveillance. Drones drive down the cost of surveillance considerably. We worry that the incidence of surveillance will go up.” (Read a New York Times report on the hearing here.)

The FAA has announced it will be coming out with rules by 2015 to govern the use of commercial drones. Already, one airline pilot has reported a suspicious flying object near JFK Airport in New York. The skies may soon be full of such things and, if you know anything about technology, you can easily predict that these drones will get smaller and cheaper over time.

What happens when that gnat you swat at a family picnic starts smoking? Is the fly buzzing your head really alive, or is your wife merely trying to confirm her suspicions of your infidelity? Is that thing near the ceiling of your grocery store keeping track of what you pull off the shelf?

Civil libertarians will have their hands full enough with police departments that want to go where no search warrant has gone before. Add the private sector, and privacy could be a quaint old notion before long.

Think of how much fun YouTube will be in that world. And think how scary it will be.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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