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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Civilian Use: Violating Rights, Privacy, and Safety? by Erik Chait

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as UAVs or drones, are increasingly being used around the world for domestic surveillance on civilian populations. Even though UAVs offer a military and technological competitive edge against U.S. enemies, the thought of being routinely under surveillance from the air is disturbing to many who value their personal privacy.

Recently, news articles concerning the use of UAVs in peacetime have been making the headlines. In July 2009, the Interior Ministry of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia accused Russia of “increasing the number of reconnaissance missions over its territory by Russian spy drones” [1]. This increase in Russian drone missions over Georgia came just one year after Russia’s invasion of the country. On Nov 9, 2009, Indian intelligence agencies reported the sighting of a Chinese UAV near a historic Buddhist Monastery where the Dalai Lama was visiting at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in India [2]. Several days before this incident the Chinese vehemently chastised the Indian government for letting the Dalai Lama into India. In April of 2005, Hezbollah militants operating an Iranianmade UAV (from Lebanon) successfully penetrated Israel’s air defenses and flew for nine minutes undetected through Israel’s elaborate, overlapping aircraft sensing early warning network. Brigadier General Ruth Yaron of the Israeli Defense Forces was quoted saying “[c]urrent air defenses are not designed to detect and recognize small, low-flying, slow-moving objects like small UAV’s” [3].

Recently, the use of UAVs to monitor the Arizona- Mexico border for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been widely discussed in the media. Furthermore, the Predator B UAV, one of several UAVs currently being used at the border, has the ability to stay aloft for more than thirty hours without having to refuel [4]. These capabilities allow border security to have airborne surveillance of the border-area much longer than would be possible with traditional aircraft.

The cost of using UAVs along the Arizona-Mexico border for law enforcement is much lower than the cost of operating conventional, manned aircraft. Currently the Shadow and Predator UAVs are used by Homeland Security along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent drug and human smuggling. The Shadow UAV costs $350,000, while the Predator UAV costs $4.5 million. In contrast, the unit cost of a P-3 manned aircraft used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is $36 million. Blackhawk helicopters which are frequently used on the U.S. border, cost $8.6 million per unit [4]. In addition, UAVs have the added benefit of reducing human casualties. By acting as substitutes for Blackhawk helicopters, among other military devices, UAVs have served a dual purpose in the fight against drug and illegal human trafficking.

Law enforcement organizations around the world stand to benefit from UAV use for domestic surveillance to track criminals or observe crime. The United Kingdom and the U.S. are already using UAVs for domestic surveillance to aide local law enforcement [5,6]. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) recently put into service a domestic surveillance drone in 2006, called SkySeer [7]. However, SkySeer was quickly taken out of service by the Federal Aviation Administration due to the failure of LASD to obtain proper permits for an unmanned aircraft.

Military successes of UAVs in the battlefield have governments across the world scrambling for UAV technology. Military UAVs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have shown the world how useful and deadly these unmanned vehicles are. Israel routinely uses UAVs for aerial monitoring of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Iranian nuclear facilities. Since 2004, UAV missile strikes conducted by the U.S. have killed 1,182 suspected terrorists in Pakistan [8]. Unfortunately, these missile strikes have also resulted in numerous civilian deaths.

The utility of UAVs is increasing for both military and civilian applications. UAV sales growth is the highest of all sectors in the world aerospace industry. The U.S. will account for 76 percent of worldwide spending on UAV technology over the next decade and about 58 percent of the procurement. A 2010 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $4.9 billion annually to $11.5 billion, totaling just over $80 billion in the next ten years, which is equivalent to eighteen U.S. Nimitz aircraft carriers or 6,153 new hospitals [9–11].

As sales of UAV technology continue to grow, defense manufacturers will lobby for UAV domestic surveillance use in virtually every country. Defense contractor lobbying efforts may persuade more governments to purchase UAVs. For example, the top U.S. defense contractors spent $27 million in lobbying at the time of the Afghan Surge announcement in 2009 [12]. Lockheed Martin, one of the largest UAV manufacturers and a top recipient of Department of Defense contracts, spent nearly $190,000 in lobbying in the beginning of 2009. This includes a $50,000 payment to the National Defense University that lists General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as the honoree and an additional $50,000 to the Coast Guard Foundation for a dinner attended by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. In July 2009, the company was awarded an $821 million contract to service Homeland Security surveillance planes (UAVs) [13]. The political sway large defense contractors have is fairly obvious. If they push the U.S. government to use UAVs for domestic surveillance to increase their sales, then they can expand the practice of domestic surveillance.

Although the federal government remains the largest buyer of UAVs, private companies have expressed interest in using UAVs for aerial photography [5]. UAVs replacing conventional news helicopters will undoubtedly be an area of interest to television and radio stations. TV and radio stations could use drones to film live police chases or report traffic accidents. Additionally, UAVS could prevent traffic deaths attributed to dangerous, groundbased police chases by removing police officers from the situation.

There are a number of privacy and safety concerns with UAV technology being used over civilian areas. Privacy and legal issues arise when UAVs flying over populated areas stand to violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure clause and the United Nation’s Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy” [14–15]. Privacy laws concerning UAVs might be handled the same way that the U.S. government handles information gathered from orbiting observation satellites. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which analyzes intelligence collected by orbiting observation satellites, produces “geospatial intelligence” (pictures and data) after it analyzes satellite and aerial imagery of the U.S. [16]. This information is then used for military, policy, and disaster-relief purposes by the U.S. government [17].There is no reason to assume that the legal leeway given to the government concerning orbiting satellites, such as taking pictures of Americans, will not be granted to atmospheric flying UAVs.

Despite the many benefits associated with domestic surveillance via the use of UAVs, there are a significant number of accidents involved with aircraft. An April 2003 Congressional Research Service report noted that the UAV accident rate is 100 times higher than that of the manned aircraft rate [4]. An UAV “accident” occurs when an aircraft is totally destroyed or lands on a runway so hard that the aircraft sustains damage [18]. Other factors, such as engine failure and loss of contact with ground operators, are also causes of UAV crashes. Between 2003 and 2006, U.S. Air Force researchers concluded that 71 percent of UAV crashes could be attributed to “human error factors” caused by their human pilots on the ground [18]. In 2009, Air Force officials acknowledged that more than a third of their unmanned Predator spy planes, which are twenty seven feet long and cost $4.5 million apiece, have crashed, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan [19]. This accident rate has been somewhat consistent since UAVs started being used for military operations. According to a 2002 Air Force study, the current accident rate for UAVs is 50 times greater than that of an F-16. On August 25, 2010, the U.S. Navy lost contact and control of a drone over Washington D.C. an hour into an initial test flight, and it flew 23 miles uncontrolled into the capital’s airspace [20]. The Navy said a software glitch caused the problem. Although nobody was hurt and nothing was damaged, the potential for damage still remains.

Collisions with manned aircraft are more likely if UAVs begin to operate in metropolitan airspace over populated cities. In the future, safety alone could prohibit UAVs from being used over populated areas. Although UAV use has been primarily for military purposes, their role in the civilian world will become increasingly common in the twenty-first century. Social benefits of UAVs include aerial photography, use for commercial news outlets, border protection, and aiding local law enforcement. However, safety and privacy issues trump the concerns of UAVs operating in civilian airspaces. Equipment failure and ground controller error of UAVs are a major concern. Future technological advances could eliminate all of these drawbacks.

Erik Chait is an undergraduate at Arizona State University.


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