Congress passed a bill this week allowing the government to fly unmanned spy planes in the U.S.
The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama reportedly signed, orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the licensing of commercial drones by 2013.
Privacy advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and eventually by private companies as well. They fear that law enforcement will actually use the drones in attacks against criminals in the U.S.
“There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of Aviation Scientists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation also is “concerned about the implications for surveillance by government agencies,” said attorney Jennifer Lynch.
The provision in the legislation is the fruit of “a huge push by lawmakers and the defense sector to expand the use of drones” in American airspace, she added.
According to some estimates, the commercial drone market in the United States could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars once the FAA clears their use.
The agency projects that 30,000 drones could be in the nation’s skies in the next few years.
The highest-profile use of drones by the United States has been in the CIA’s armed Predator-drone program, which targets al Qaeda terrorist leaders. But the vast majority of U.S. drone missions, even in war zones, are flown for surveillance. Some drones are as small as model aircraft, while others have the wingspan of a full-size jet.
The legislation orders the FAA, before the end of the year, to expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies. The FAA currently issues certificates, which can cover multiple flights by more than one aircraft in a particular area, on a case-by-case basis.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, operates nine drones, variants of the CIAs feared Predator. The aircraft, which are flown remotely by a team of 80 fully qualified pilots, are used principally for border and counternarcotics surveillance under four long-term FAA certificates.
Officials say they can be used on a short-term basis for a variety of other public-safety and emergency-management missions if a separate certificate is issued for that mission.
“It’s not all about surveillance,” Mr. Aftergood said.
Homeland Security has deployed drones to support disaster relief operations. Unmanned aircraft also could be useful for fighting fires or finding missing climbers or hikers, he added.
President Obama is reportedly excited about the use of drones on U.S. citizens. ”The President wants to be able to keep a close eye on citizens that may not agree with him on certain policy issues,” said a source close to an aide near the White House. ”He likes uses drones abroad and now he’s going to use them on Americans. He’s thrilled.”