By Corey Friedman
State lawmakers included a provision in the 2013 Appropriations Act that prevents state and local authorities from using drones to monitor and record people without their knowledge. The budget bans unmanned government aircraft until July 1, 2015.
While Wilson police and Wilson County sheriff’s deputies don’t have any drones hovering over our county, the North Carolina law enforcement agencies that have unmanned aircraft will see their high-tech surveillance toys grounded. That’s a rare win for personal privacy in an age when government spying is perhaps at an all-time high.
The most notorious and controversial drones are those the U.S. military uses to fire missiles at terrorists and enemy targets. Piloted from afar, the planes keep our troops out of harm’s way, but critics fear a lack of accountability when drone strikes injure and kill innocents — and say the planes make it easier and more impersonal for servicemembers to take a life.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, spoke on the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours in March to block John Brennan’s appointment as head of the CIA in a showdown with President Barack Obama’s administration over domestic drone policy.
Following Paul’s filibuster, Attorney General Eric Holder signed a letter saying the United States would not use drones to kill noncombatant U.S. citizens on American soil, even if authorities alleged ties to terrorism.
The drone strike standoff burnished Paul’s chances to vie for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It also made the American public more aware that the government is using drones to monitor citizens’ activities with no formal accusation of wrongdoing and no due process of law.
On the federal, state and local levels, badge-and-gun brigades have sent eyes into the sky in secret surveillance missions. It troubles us that anyone can be tracked and his or her movements closely catalogued without a judge signing off on a warrant.
Drone defenders might point out that there’s no right to privacy in a public place. When we walk on streets and sidewalks and drive on roads and highways, others can photograph or videotape us without our consent because we’re in an open public space. Unless the images or footage are used improperly — say, in an unauthorized advertising campaign — the camera-shy can do little more than gnash their teeth.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between a tourist snapping pictures or a photojournalist documenting the news and government agencies using drones to scan streets and highways, zooming in on our faces, monitoring our movements.
It’s voyeuristic. It’s Orwellian. And it has no place in a United States where those suspected of wrongdoing are supposed to enjoy the presumption of innocence.
One quibble with the state’s otherwise laudable drone ban: It allows the state chief information officer to grant an exception allowing a government agency to use or purchase an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Putting that much power in the hands of a political appointee tasked with overseeing information technology is a mistake. We’d prefer to see an elected official who’s directly accountable to the voters — or, better yet, a judicial panel — make those determinations.
We think spying on citizens with no judicial oversight is inappropriate for any government agency, and it shows profound disrespect for the taxpaying public who financed the drones and pay their operators’ salaries. We’re glad North Carolina lawmakers chose to draw a line in the sand.
[Note: This originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]
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