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Unmanned Aerial Drones Raise Specter of Big Brother

Richmond Times-Dispatch

WASHINGTON When it flies overhead at 65,000 feet - or 12 miles high - an unmanned airplane called Global Hawk can spy a milk carton sitting on a picnic table, manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp. says.

The U.S. Air Force employed this flying drone and a smaller one called Predator effectively over Iraq. Next, the federal government is considering use of the $35 million Global Hawk and other unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as part of high-tech arsenal to protect the United States.

Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has urged President Bush to "explore the option of using UAVs for the critical homeland defense mission." He suggested uses from patrolling borders to monitoring the shipping of hazardous materials and security for dams, power plants and drinking-water utilities.

Top officials at the new Department of Homeland Security have discussed a demonstration UAV project. The Coast Guard has awarded a contract to Bell Helicopter for three prototype Eagle Eye UAVs, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.

Industry representatives are enthusiastic about the drones' potential.

"I believe we will see Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) watching over major events, such as the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl, in the not-too-distant future," Brad Brown, then-president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International wrote earlier this year.

For some privacy advocates, the talk about civilian use of unmanned aircraft has raised a specter of Big Brother in the skies, and a new privacy debate is brewing.

"The law that governs how the government can use these technologies is back in the stone ages. Our laws say that if you're in a public place, the government can surveil you," said lawyer Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

When the law was conceived, Steinhardt said, "No one imagined the extraordinary power that would be given to the government by new technologies. They really are, in many respects, Superman's powers." If the laws aren't updated, he cautioned, "Pretty soon we're going to live in a surveillance society where our every movement, action or utterance is going to be tracked and monitored."

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center in Washington, believes constitutional issues could come into play.

"It's a serious issue when the government takes technologies that are designed for military use and battlefield use and directs them toward the civilian population of the United States," Rotenberg said.

Sen. Warner, a Republican, said he hoped a cabinet secretary overseeing any surveillance use of UAVs over the United States would impress upon operators that "you must guard the privacy rights of individuals, [and] they can only be overcome if it's a compelling problem of national security." He urged reposing trust in the top authorities.

But Daniel J. Solove, a privacy-law expert, urged new rules for accountability if the government adopts the unmanned airborne-surveillance technology for civilian purposes.

"What would happen if J. Edgar Hoover had it?" asked Solove, who teaches at Seton Hall University School of Law. "If you look at the history of what the FBI did throughout the 20th century, it is shocking and appalling."

The Senate, in its spending plan for fiscal 2004, has asked President Bush to report by April on potential applications for flying drones in supporting homeland-security missions.

Warner's Senate Armed Services Committee directed that the report also discuss "important issues of safety, privacy and civil liberties" before the UAVs operate over U.S. territory.

Warner is among those who have pushed for accelerating the use of flying drones by the military. Interest in them is growing: UAV funding exploded from $284 million for 2000 to $1.725 billion in Bush's budget for 2004, according to Unmanned Systems, a magazine published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Arlington-based group, discounted the Big Brother fears as alarmist.

Privacy issues will be tackled in time, he said. He contended the immediate concern is developing rules and procedures for unmanned aircraft and general manned air traffic to share airspace.

"It is my expectation that as we move toward normalizing UAVs flying in public air space that one of a number of issues that will be addressed will be the privacy issue," Davidson said.

Other uses that have been discussed for UAVs in the future, if airspace rules are ironed out, include cargo shipping, traffic control, disaster assessment, weather forecasting and monitoring forest fires.

Another industry official contended that trust is paramount if the government turns to UAVs for homeland security.

"You've got to trust that it would be used for the intended purpose. The intended purpose is security of individuals, not prying into their lives," said John Porter, manager of business development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. His company makes the Predator.

Moreover, typical homeland-defense surveillance ware would be focused on such targets at a distance as a small craft smuggling drugs onto a beach and would not be well suited for identifying individuals, industry officials said.

"This is not a James Bond film," said Ron Bauer, director of sales for Sarnoff Corp., whose products include digital TV for surveillance. "Somewhere the reality meets the fantasy part."

The top-of-the-line Global Hawk, with a length of 44 feet and wingspan of 116 feet, has a payload with three kinds of sensors. They are electro-optical, producing high-resolution digital images; infrared; and synthetic-aperture radar, which Northrop Grumman says can see through weather, haze and dust.

"The combination of these is like having a human eye, a cat's eye and an electronic eyeball in one system," a company spokeswoman explained.

While the Global Hawk's operators could identify a milk carton on a picnic table, she added, they could not tell whether it contained 1 percent or 2 percent milk, nor could they identify if the occupant of a car under surveillance was Saddam Hussein.

To an academic expert on surveillance technology, the pluses of using unmanned aircraft for homeland security could easily outweigh the minuses, provided there is proper training and supervision and a technology that is economical.

"We're probably going to see more concern about when the possibility of invasions of privacy are not by government agents, but by private individuals" snooping on others, said Mark Monmonier, a geographer at Syracuse University's Maxwell School.

As long as flying drones used by the government do the same kinds of surveillance that operators of manned aircraft have conducted, he did not foresee legal problems, added Monmonier, author of "Spying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy."

Virginia's Warner, meanwhile, apparently believes that when the United States is guarding against another terrorist attack, expanded use of UAVs is a good idea and privacy concerns can be balanced.

The fifth-term senator used a hypothetical story to allow that with a new high-tech security net, a private citizen just might get ensnared.

What if, the senator said, an unmanned aircraft flew over a coastal area and captured on videotape a man with a woman - not his wife but his mistress - walking down the beach.

"C'est la guerre," Warner said, using the French phrase for "that's war."

Contact Peter Hardin at (202) 662-7669 or

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