By Vladimir Gladkov
The White House is preparing for an unprecedented move which will violate the basic rights of American citizens. President Obama is expected to sign the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act which would allow the government agencies and private companies to use surveillance drones in American airspace. The US military and intelligence have a huge experience of using the unmanned drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other zones of military conflicts. But it is the first time when the US government decided to use drones for spying on its own citizens.
The unmanned drones became a favorite weapon of the CIA in its war on terror, allowing hitting high profile targets, such as terrorist leaders. The predator drones presented a lot of advantages over a manned aircraft, including a possibility to avoid diplomatic scandal which would follow the potential capture of the pilots. The drones have been used by the US for more than a decade for armed attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other troubled regions, becoming a true nightmare for the militants. By October 2009 the CIA reported it had liquidated more than half of the 20 most wanted al-Qaeda terrorist suspects, using the unmanned drones.
At the same time, the use of predator drones led to a serious controversy, since numerous reports of mistaken strikes on civilians started to appear. In July 2009 Brookings Institution released a report saying that in the US drone attacks against terrorists on the territory of Pakistan, ten civilians die for every militant killed. The deaths of civilians as the result of drone strikes has repeatedly become the cause of diplomatic tensions between the US and Pakistan – one of the most important allies of Washington in its war on Taliban and al-Qaeda. In November Islamabad finally decided to block border crossings to Afghanistan used by the US in a response to another American airstrike that mistakenly hit Pakistani troops.
But, instead of solving the problem of using the drones abroad, the government decided to bring it straight to America. The FAA Reauthorization Act, passed by Senate and waiting to be signed by the President is meant to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. Privacy advocates have already started to express deep concern over the authorization of the bill. “There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities,” said Steven Aftergood – the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
As of now the Department of Homeland Security is the only federal agency which openly discusses its use of drones in domestic airspace. In theory, the surveillance drones may become an extremely useful instrument in a war on crime, domestic terrorism and illegal immigration. Unmanned aircrafts could also be extremely effective for fighting fires, finding missing hikers and other emergency missions. But the civil rights advocates believe the use of drones would violate the basic constitutional rights of the Americans. Considering the common tactics and ethic principles of the FBI and American police it is hard to doubt these beliefs. Another fact that backs the concerns of privacy advocates is that the FAA refuses to disclose which agencies have already been granted the certificates allowing the usage if surveillance drones.
“We need a list so we can ask [each agency], ‘What are your policies on drone use? How do you protect privacy? How do you ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment?’ – says Jennifer Lynch from the Electronic Frontier Foundation – a donor-supported organization working to protect fundamental rights regardless of technology. The EFF is currently suing the Federal Aviation Administration to make it publish certification records.
However it is hard to believe that civil rights groups would manage to stop the government from using such an effective instrument of controlling its citizens. According to the estimates 30,000 drones could be in the nation’s airspace by 2020. And it means that Americans should say goodbye to the very idea of privacy.