Senators fear drones 'buzzing overhead'

Senators expressed concern on Wednesday that without proper restrictions, police and private groups could use drones to invade the privacy of people in the United States.

Drones are cheaper to build and fly than helicopters, making them a cost-effective option for police departments looking to gain a bird's eye view of a scene. Commercial drones are currently illegal, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working on rules to grant licenses to private groups by 2015.

The FAA has predicted that by the end of the decade, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies. 

That's a frightening prospect for lawmakers who fear the drone fleet will be used to peer into people's private lives.

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"While there may be many valuable uses for this new technology, the use of unmanned aircraft raises serious concerns about the impact on the constitutional and privacy rights of American citizens," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during a hearing on Wednesday.

"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead, monitoring the activity of law abiding citizens, runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's ranking member, said.

Amie Stepanovich, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the drones could be equipped with cameras, microphones, heat sensors or facial recognition technology. Some drones are able to hover in place, allowing them to spy on a person without detection for a long period of time.

She argued that police should need a warrant to use drones to collect evidence on a suspect in a criminal investigation, and that people should have a private right of action to sue drone operators that infringe on their rights.

She also urged Congress to limit the use of commercial drones, warning that a person could use a drone to stalk or harass others.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, stressed the potential that drones have for exciting new services and innovations.

"They're basically flying smartphones. I think that once private industry gets their hands on these, you're going to see some really great wonders," Calo said.

But he also warned that privacy law has not caught up to the new technology, saying it's not clear whether the courts would rule that the Constitution requires a warrant for persistent drone surveillance. He urged Congress to enact legislation to clarify privacy rules for drone use.

Ben Miller of the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff's Office testified that his department has used drones to combat fires and find missing people. He said police can use drones to conduct aerial missions for a fraction of the cost of a helicopter and with greater safety.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone industry lobbying group, argued that commercial drones will create 70,000 new jobs and $13.6 billion in economic growth in the three years after they are legalized. 

He agreed with other witnesses that equipping domestic drones with weapons is a "non-starter."

A number of lawmakers have introduced legislation to set privacy standards for drone use, and some states have also moved to limit the technology.