Congress must check the government's authority to use surveillance drones on U.S. citizens before the government starts abusing the new technology, say two lawmakers spearheading legislation in the House and Senate.
“It's better to be ahead of this than behind it,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), who will roll out legislation next week in the House that would mandate the requirement of a warrant.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the sponsor of Senate legislation, joked that if Congress doesn’t move quickly, there’s no end to what the federal, state and local governments might do with drones.
“If you're flying over New York City, just think of all the people secretly drinking Big Gulps that you can get,” he said, referring to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's much-maligned rule against the sale of large sodas or sugary drinks in the city.
In introducing legislation to require warrants before employing drones to conduct surveillance, the two lawmakers are responding to growing concerns, particularly among grassroots conservatives, that authorities could misuse the technology.
While much public attention has been focused on the use of drones to take out terrorists overseas, state and local police forces are increasingly interested in the technology.
Both Scott and Paul, who said they will begin seeking co-sponsors to their legislation next week, said they see the bill as putting in place a requirement analogous to the requirement that the government get a warrant before tapping someone’s phone line.
But Paul added that warrants on drone activity need to be handled even more carefully, since drones could easily be used for broader surveillance purposes than what is authorized by the warrant.
Paul said there are already reports of new technology that allows for the production of very small drones that could monitor individuals, and that approval of this technology to surveil Americans must also be doled out via warrants.
“We're talking about stuff that can not just fly overhead, we're talking about stuff that can fly under the windowsill outside your window and be looking in your window,” Paul said. “The questions that arise from a privacy point of view are just enormous.”
Scott was the original sponsor of the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act. But before introducing it — while both members were at a practice for the congressional Republican baseball team — he discussed the possibility of Paul supporting a Senate companion bill.
“It's amazing what kind of work you get done even during practice,” Paul said. “We were next to the batting cage and he said, ‘I've got a bill that's right up your alley,' and he told me about it, and I said, 'You're right.’ ”
Scott said he’s happy to have a partner in the high-profile Paul, a Tea Party favorite whom many think will eventually run for president.
“I'm happy he's introduced the companion language in the Senate,” Scott said. “I think he's the perfect guy to introduce it because he will help bring much more awareness to this issue.”
The bill is being considered as the Federal Aviation Administration plans a pilot program to test-fly drones across the United States, although the FAA is not expected to set the rules for drone use. Law enforcement agencies are interested in using the unmanned aircraft, but the American Civil Liberties Union has said it fears the effect on privacy that these drones would have.
The bill would allow warrantless drone use in certain circumstances, such as when they are needed to prevent an “imminent danger to life” or when there are risks of a terrorist attack. Paul added that he could support the warrantless use of aerial drones in cases where, for example, a fleeing suspect needs to be located.
Scott said he expects broad support for his legislation in Congress and among privacy-rights groups.
“I think we'll have a tremendous number of co-sponsors that will get on board,” he said.
Paul said he has already secured a few Senate co-sponsors and will continue working to collect more.