Oversight needed for domestic drones

The Qube public safety unmanned aircraft system shown in this commecial image is manufactured by AeroVironment. @Photo credit: www.avinc.com

Currently used by the military overseas, drone aircraft are soon expected to be flying by the thousands in the skies over America, primarily on behalf of state and local police. Before that happens, more answers are needed about risks to the public’s safety and privacy.

So far, however, federal agencies have been loath to enter the discussion. The Department of Homeland Security declined even to appear before a congressional oversight committee on Thursday.

Previously, the Transportation Safety Administration, a division of Homeland Security, ignored a recommendation that it undertake a review of security and privacy issues.

Congress should force the issue of agency responsibility, while determining the extent to which domestic drones can be used, if at all.

The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for determining whether drones present a safety problem. The fact that the FAA has estimated that 10,000 civilian drones will be in domestic use within five years suggests that the agency already is predisposed to approval.

But the oversight committee heard testimony about the vulnerability of drone aircraft to technologically savvy terrorists who can hack their controls and crash them.

A spokesman for the Government Accountability Office said signal jammers available on the Internet, costing as little as $50, could do the job.

That should give Congress and the FAA pause as they consider their domestic use.

The FAA, however, isn’t charged with privacy issues related to domestic drones. And there are substantial privacy concerns. The unmanned aircraft would mainly be used by law enforcement agencies.

As such, they could be an effective and comparatively cheap anti-crime tool. But they also could greatly expand government intrusion of the sort typically described by the term “Big Brother.”

The broad and unbridled use of civilian drone aircraft should not be a foregone conclusion. Congressional watchdogs shouldn’t allow federal bureaucrats to give them the brush-off on essential questions related to safety and privacy.