There’s a new Senate bill in town which would grant the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) greater power to seize, destroy, research, and surveil unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace. According to Gizmodo, DHS deputy general counsel Hayley Chang testified in Congress last week that the department is being hampered by current regulations due to outdated laws that don’t encompass the modern advent of increased drone use in the country.
The DHS claimed in written testimony that the potential for terroristic drone use is not only a conceptual fear, but a very real, “looming threat.” While using fear to introduce and promote legislation that encroaches on civil liberties is an age-old strategy, the DHS isn’t entirely off-base, here. Terrorist groups such as ISIS have used inexpensive UAVs to drop grenades and explosives before, and most recently, an unidentified drone trespassed onto King Salman’s royal palace in Saudi Arabia. We’ve also seen UAVs enter sporting events and drop materials onto unsuspecting crowds. Unfortunately, these are simply the scenarios of our times that agencies like the DHS must consider.
“Our efforts right now, for example, to detect drones that could pose a threat primarily rely on scanning the radio frequency spectrum,” Chang told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. “That raises questions under the Wiretap Act and Pen Trap Act for use, as well as spending any money on research or testing. Because its use is illegal, so testing and acquiring it is illegal.”
We’ve reported on the FAA’s efforts to implement various new security-enhancing measures before, such as requiring a drone’s ID number to be externally visible, or regulating hobby pilots like commercial users. The DHS, it seems, is aligned in this philosophy, and pushing for even broader governmental assistance in facilitating its duties. “Because the technology use is illegal, we are not permitted under our rules to purchase equipment that’s illegal to use,” Chang explained. “So we can’t test it.”
While the DHS has some warranted evidence supporting its argument, like the fact that suspicious drone flights in U.S. airspace rose from eight in 2013 to 1,752 in 2016, not everyone is as eager to curb citizens’ rights in the name of security. The ACLU, for example, submitted a letter to the subcommittee urging lawmakers not to give the government too much power.
“While the potential security threat posed by drones is real and the need to protect certain facilities is legitimate, strong checks and balances to protect property, privacy, and First Amendment rights are vital,” the letter read. “S.2836 lacks such measures. The bill amounts to an enormous unchecked grant of authority to the government to forcefully remove drones from the sky in nebulous security circumstances.” The letter includes the potential scenario of the government seizing or destroying drones “including in cases they are operated by a non-malicious actor like a hobbyist, commercial entity, or journalist.”
The U.S. drone industry is growing at a rapid pace, and the need for secure air traffic management systems and governmental regulation are very much required elements of this new landscape. Fortunately, while the government is working hard at maintaining its dominant oversight in these matters, there are groups like the ACLU challenging their motives and potential new powers. Hopefully, we’ll find a stable, agreed upon middle-ground, that can keep people safe while maintaining their safety.
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