Our View: Drone debate is healthy one
We're happy that there finally seems to be some earnest questioning and debate unfolding in Washington and around the country about the proper use of drones.
We're not sure why we feel a tinge of paranoia about surveillance drones, but we do.
After all, it's not like any government agency, private business, or TV eye-in-the-sky station with a big enough budget doesn't already put manned aircraft up there to watch us, track us, photograph us. And they can zoom in on amazing things with satellites.
Maybe our fear/suspicion was planted from watching reruns of the Terminator movies, where robotic drones hover over the ground zapping anything humanoid.
But, no, it's more than that.
For one thing, a big part of what makes us love living in America, rather than in totalitarian countries, is the feeling that we aren't constantly being watched (well, at least it feels that way). And it has to do with us never entirely trusting even our own government (or big business or TV stations) in testing out the constitutional limits of new technology.
Also, we have a stake in things locally as our largest employer, Beale Air Force Base, pursues a mission of national security. The local base is home to Global Hawks — unmanned and unarmed surveillance drones. The base also is home to the U-2s, manned surveillance planes that have been around for more than 50 years.
(Oh, and don't forget that just down the road, Oakland's sheriff is proposing to employ drones for domestic law enforcement surveillance.)
How this country allows its citizens to be watched is certainly our business.
According to Bloomberg News, the prospect for increased police and private drone flights is finally leading to federal and state proposals to restrict information gathering or require privacy disclosures.
"It's aerial surveillance on steroids because drones are so inexpensive and they're potentially so wide-reaching in terms of where they can look and what they can do," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "They represent a real new front in privacy invasion, so people are right to be worried about them."
How much trust can be placed in government hands? Could political enemies be tracked? Could foreign interests slip into the picture? Who monitors what's in the air and for what purpose? Why would a government need to watch us and peer into our backyards without prior suspicion or a warrant? Who watches the watchers?
See, it's not hard to seem paranoid, even though we know that there are very real and good reasons to employ drones: patrolling our national borders, monitoring crops and weather and land conditions, fighting wildfires, tracking illegal marijuana plant sites, finding missing hikers, monitoring pipeline routes …
According to that Bloomberg article, citing the Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Va., the global market for drones will grow from $6.6 billion at present to $11.4 billion by 2022. That's probably a light estimate.
Like it or not, more drones over the United States appears inevitable. The machines, outfitted with the most advanced spy gear, can stay airborne longer and for much less the cost than conventional aircraft. A benefit and danger. Congress and states have every reason to take a hard look at the aircraft and set guidelines on their use.
The more you wonder, the more there is to wonder about. Should drone operators keep tabs on the poor and crime-ridden parts of big cities? How about the financial districts, under the guise of security issues? And under what authority can drone operators act on the potential violations they observe?
Could drones flying in United States' skies ever be armed?
We want our security protected, and we want our privacy respected, and we want our constitutional rights always considered. Also, we don't want our skyways overcrowded with machines and we want peopled flights to be able to fly safely.
For all of this, we can't afford to have drone operators playing it by ear.
So ask away, congressional delegates. Get this all ironed out for us, please.