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Drones, Drones Everywhere! Update

The discussion below on Iran's capture of an American drone wandered, raising the spectacle of drones in American skies. Well, no sooner do we conjure a conspiracy theory than it happens...in North Dakota. Watch out Minnesota! LATimes.UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald is on the case! Here.

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Having spent several seconds thinking about this, istm that this is basically a phone tap on steroids - using technology to surveil. If the same constitutional/legal protections that govern phone taps are used for predator drones, is there a concern? (Not asking the question dismissively - I'd really like to know).

Hi, Margaret, not that I know anything about law, but the situation in the story seems relatively straightforward - they wanted to use the surveillance to identify specific people in a specific place. I'd like to think that law enforcement officials could go to a judge and say, "we're looking for these three people on this farm, and we will use the Predator drone for this and only this purpose: to locate those three individuals." I suppose they could have used a helicopter for the same purpose. Are there limits on the police using helicopters? I'm hampered in that everything I know about law enforecement, I've learned by watching "Law & Order" and "The Closer". :-)

Reasonable question. But exactly how would surveillance from the skies allow for the constitutional/legal protections such as getting a warrant to do a specific thing with a specific person and suspicion in mind? Perhaps this is possible. Perhaps in this case a warrant was given. Story doesn't say, one way or the other.

Drones drones everywhere, and no one stops to think -

Helicopters hover over the hoods every night.. with lights shining down too. I bet the first police car was thought to be un-fair too..

Now maybe all you skeptics will start taking Roswell, New Mexico (1947) seriously!As far as the law is concerned, I'm told that here in Vermont the occasional helicopter I see floating overhead is looking for illicit pot cultivation. If this is true (I don't know) and if it's legal (I don't know that either), it's hard to see that the use of a drone is any different.And what about these drones we either have, or are said to be developing, that are the size of a house fly? If, some lazy summer day, I get one of them with the flyswatter, will I be arrested for the destruction of government property?

Will you be able to distinguish the house fly from the drone fly?

The queen bee from the drone bee?

Enhanced observation from a distance has long been a highly desirable capability. In 1608, Hans Lippershey of Zeeland "presented his spy-glass to Count Maurice of Nassau, who immediately ordered three more and ordered him to keep his methods secret. He saw it as a useful spying weapon in war ". Think of surveillance drones as one more step along the way, which do away with the need to climb to the top of the highest hilltop or rooftop nearby. http://www.cosmicelk.net/telrev.htm

Brave new world meets 1984. Next, the drones will be watching the drones, too. All this on a utube video app near you soon!

What's the difference in principle between a police car cruising a neighborhood and a helicopter or drone? If all they're looking at is what is happening outside of buildings I don't see any real difference, though I suppose your back yard isn't public in the same sense as th stree it.. Already we can google a picture of what is happening in our own backyards, and there are neighborhoods where the residents themselves pay off duty police for extra surveillance. So there must be something desirable about it.Sometimes I think the main objections to all this come in large part from the people who want to grow their own pot.

Hi, Ann, I don't know if you were able to check out the Glenn Greenwald link that Margaret provided, he talks about some of his concerns. (Actually, if you click a link within the linked story, he talks about them in greater detail). Apparently, a single drone has monitoring equipment that is so sophisticated that it can focus simultaneously on all the doings in an entire town - what hundreds (thousands?) of people are up to at any given time. Legal protections - warrants that identify specific individuals in specific locations - seem essential to control the curiousity of law enforcement officials. But if they abuse the permissions contained in warrants, our civil liberties would seem to be at great risk.

Jim P. ==Yes, there is something repulsive about such drones, sort of voyeurish. But I still don't see the difference between that and police cars cruising around or journalists taking pictures from up in a skyscraper, or even neighbors looking over the back fence. I wouldn't like my neighbors keeping track of me like that, but why should it be illegal? Maybe it should be, but why?

Ann, your neighbor would be a busy body; the police, the CIA, the FBI would be cruising looking for suspicious matter without a court-issued warrant. Think Big Brother, 1984, etc.

Ms. S. --But police cars cruising are looking for suspicious matter without a warrant, and we're glad to have them. Is it the *amount* of power that drones, etc., would give the police, etc., that is dangerous or unfair? If so, why? Is it the fact that while we know police cars and helicopters are there we aren't aware of the drones and other snoop stuff? Or what?I find the whole notion repulsive, but that's just an aesthetic judgment :-(

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.