When we picture drones, we picture freakishly sleek, refined, and cold-looking surveillance (and sometimes killing) machines. We think of the news that tells us we send drones to scope out the deserts of Iraq or we think of the news that tells us Iran captured a U.S. drone as it was surveying the area. What we don’t think of is how much we are surveyed ourselves.
Earlier this week, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed to a U.S. Senate committee that the FBI has in fact used drones for surveillance on U.S. soil in limited cases. Mr Mueller said the agency had "very few" drones and had used them in "a very minimal way" and "very seldom".
Oh. Well, gee.
Normally there wouldn’t be too much of an uproar regarding the use of drones for military purposes abroad. After all, we as a people have come to gradually question our military less in these last few presidential administrations, chalking it all up to “matters of national security.” Mueller stated that the drones were used in "particular incidents where you need the capability," adding the fact that he was unsure how long images captured by the drones were kept. However, when these forms of private government spying take place on U.S. soil, it points to a degree of mistrust and fear the U.S. government has of the very people it is intended to protect.
The frightening part of this issue was that Director Mueller said the FBI was still in the "initial stages" of developing drone policies. Which ultimately means that those in control have more wiggle room to act of their own accord, with fewer consequences should something go horribly, horribly wrong.
But there is still time to influence local, regional, or national governments to change their various surveillance laws. To get there, the question that faces the American people today is, to what degree do we sacrifice privacy for national security? Amid NSA PRISM scandals in which it was recently discovered that America's spying agency has been harvesting U.S. phone records, customer data from phone companies, and overseas internet data, many still find the actions of the U.S. government to be ethically deplorable, and to an extent, who can blame them? “Very seldom,” “very few,” and “very minimal” all seem to open the door for the possibility of “very crazy.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the FBI director she believes that unmanned planes are the biggest threat to Americans' privacy, especially their use by private firms.
Nonetheless, drones can be used for immense social good. Authorities recently used a surveillance drone during a February stand-off with an Alabama man who shot dead a school bus driver and then took a five-year-old boy hostage. Information in those high-intensity situations may be crucial, but that does not justify that out of the 30,000 predicted drones that will be deployed globally within the next five years, an entire half of them will be surveying the United States. If we can ensure that the industry first matures to be able to protect the public welfare to the fullest extent of the law, then perhaps the nation can reconsider the great positive capabilities of drones on U.S. soil.