SEATTLE — For years, law enforcement agencies have used helicopters and airplanes for search-and-rescue missions, manhunts, SWAT-team operations, traffic control and car chases. So why have plans by Seattle police and other enforcement agencies to deploy unmanned drones drawn such intense fire?
The vocal opposition against the drones came into sharp focus a few weeks ago during a public meeting in Seattle when members of the Seattle Police Department were shouted down with chants of "No drones!"
In California, plans by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office to deploy drones were met last month with a news conference on the steps of Oakland City Hall where several groups raised privacy concerns.
Police, privacy rights experts and even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has strong concerns about drones, say the technology is not going away. The question is how to craft thoughtful laws that protect privacy, according to the ACLU of Washington.
"How can they (law enforcement) shepherd us into an age when we have drones if they don't deal with people's privacy fears?" said Ryan Calo, a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Law who has written on the issue of drones and privacy.
Long used by the military for surveillance and combat missions, drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs — offer law enforcement agencies the potential to deploy an eye-in-the-sky at a relatively low cost.
In February, President Barack Obama signed legislation passed by Congress that compelled the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to plan for the safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015. The Seattle Police Department was among dozens of law enforcement units, academic institutions and other agencies that were given FAA approval to deploy drones.
Police Department officials have said their plans for drones include providing camera images in homicide and traffic investigations; search-and-rescue operations; and cases involving hazardous materials, barricaded people and natural disasters.
Seattle police Lt. Greg Sackman said the FAA specifically prohibits civilian UAVs from carrying weapons systems.
In addition, FAA guidelines say police drones cannot be flown at night, near people or over crowds. FAA requirements also state that drones must be flown below 400 feet and must remain within eyesight of an operator as well as an observer at all times.
But the ACLU has said a review of existing laws and policies shows they are inadequate to safeguard citizen privacy.
Calo said that while drones do not provide more "opportunity for mischief" or misuse than, say, fusion centers where data is collected and shared, they do provoke more fear.
"We associate drones with the theater of war, and we can picture the inscrutable robot flying over the city," Calo said. "It's very evocative, and it could provide a real window for us to examine the balance between personal privacy and emerging technology."
In an article for the Stanford Law Review, Calo wrote that the gut-level fear sparked by drones could be just the "visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century."
Calo said the best protections for people would come from legislation at all levels of government. He said Congress should pass laws that direct the FAA to require applicants to say precisely how the drones will be used. In cases where there is a violation, "the FAA could hold them accountable by yanking their license," he said.
Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said the agency has reached out for public input to address worries about how drones will be used. So, while fine-tuning the technology is important, Huerta said, "building human consensus is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated."