LANHAM —They used to be only fantasies in science fiction movies: robots sailing through the air above humankind, flown without an onboard pilot, able to do just about anything.
But unmanned aerial vehicles, colloquially called drones, are very much a reality, and the American Civil Liberties Union Maryland branch is taking steps to protect Marylanders’ privacy rights, which the organization believes may be infringed upon if police begin using the machines.
“Law enforcement use of drones raises significant privacy concerns,” said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “Drones enable a kind of persistent surveillance that is simply not possible using any other type of technology.”
Legislation regulating the use of surveillance drones died in Maryland committee during the General Assembly’s legislative session earlier this year.
However, Rocah anticipates the legislation will soon be reintroduced. When it does, the ACLU expects bipartisan support, he said.
“These privacy concerns transcend traditional ideological boundaries,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled in September of next year to release updated guidelines for unmanned aerial devices, which are currently monitored strictly.
When these guidelines are published, many people expect popular use of the machines to skyrocket, Rocah said.
Police use of drones is not unheard of. Already, unmanned aerial vehicles have been used by police to apprehend criminals –– in 2011, police in North Dakota used a Predator drone owned by the Department of Homeland Security to arrest Rodney Brossart for stealing cows.
More than 80 agencies across the country have applied for licenses from the FAA to use drones across the county as of last year, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group focused on digital protection.
Already, this is concerning, Rocah said.
“It’s the virtual equivalent of having a police officer following you and filming you when you walk out of your house,” he said. “If the police were actually, literally doing that, it would not be tolerated.”
Locally, there are not yet any Prince George’s police agencies who have applied for a license to use drones.
“We don’t use drones now, and have no plans to do so in the future,” said Lt. William Alexander, a spokesperson for the Prince George’s County Police Department.
Alexander “politely declined” The Sentinel’s request to speak to Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark Magaw about potential drone use by the police department.
Privacy is the main area of concern when it comes to drones, said Lt. John Knott of the City of Bowie Police Department.
“Right now, the perception from the public is limiting,” Knott said. “Anyone would be concerned about privacy–– information about where they’re flying over, what they’re monitoring and what information they’re collecting.”
Bowie police are not looking into drone use currently, he said.
Greenbelt Police spokesman George Mathews said the city’s police department has no current plans to use drones, but said, “We don’t know what the future holds.”
However, the FBI has applied for a license to use drones, and its headquarters may move to the city if Greenbelt City Council gets its wish.
In November, the FAA released a roadmap to integrating drones into U.S. airspace, which has sparked discussion about how drone use will change in the future.
“Unmanned aircraft offer new ways for commercial enterprises and public operators to increase operational efficiency, decrease costs, and enhance safety; and this roadmap will allow us to safely and efficiently integrate them into the [national airspace],” Michael Huerta, acting administrator for the FAA, wrote in the report. “[Unmanned aircraft] integration must be accomplished without reducing existing capacity, decreasing safety, impacting current operators, or placing other airspace users or persons and property on the ground at increased risk.”
In its report, the FAA acknowledged the importance of protecting privacy and civil liberties and set forth privacy policies at drone test sites.
Rocah said the ACLU believes police should obtain a warrant before using any information collected by drones, he said.
“There are endless benign and useful applications of drones,” Rocah said. “It’s the surveillance of people we are concerned about.”
But drone use is likely inevitable as technology advances, he said.
“If we close our eyes, they won’t just go away,” said Christopher Vo, a Ph.D. student at George Mason University studying robotics and drones.
Vo, president of the D.C. Area Drone Users Meetup Group, has built more than 60 drones and currently owns at least 10. Vo uses drones primarily for research purposes such as testing algorithms for a study on the movement of robotics. While his use is limited, Vo said said the possibilities with drones are nearly endless.
“When you hear the word ‘drone,’ you probably think of drone strikes — drones that are being used to kill people in remote places,” Vo said. “But drones, like any other technology, can be an empowering technology.”
Drones are used across the globe for a variety of applications, Vo said, such as useful applications like crop-dusting and all the way to the most sinister uses like dropping missiles onto human targets.
While he fears data collection from drones on the home front, Vo said his biggest concern is the FAA will overstep its boundaries when regulating drone use, which could affect the ability of private drone enthusiasts to use their unmanned aircrafts for research and recreation.
With the new regulations on the horizon, Vo is hopeful drone use can be regulated while at the same time being allowed to use them to benefit American citizens.
“The best way to use drones is to improve our lives,” he said.