Krauthammer: Just say no to letting the police use drones

From last night’s “Special Report.” We’re not talking about armed drones here, of course, just eye-in-the-sky surveillance, but CK says no way regardless. I’m sympathetic to his libertarian impulse but I think his reaction’s being driven by the device’s military application, not its intended police use. The public knows it as an instrument of death so naturally we recoil at the thought of it hovering over American cities. If we’re going to ban it, though, let’s at least ban it for privacy concerns over what it’ll actually be used for, not because it makes us feel icky to think that similar machines are being used in a different capacity against terrorists. Otherwise it’s not unlike saying that the police shouldn’t have helicopters because, hey, the U.S. Army does too and theirs have built-in machine guns.

As for the privacy concerns, Andy McCarthy counters:

There is a considerable body of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that applies to this subject. Even if the Framers never considered drones, the underlying search principles still inform us: Is the surveillance capable of searching private areas for which the police would otherwise need a warrant? Can it be limited to public areas where people have no expectation of privacy, where cops patrol even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity, and where drone surveillance would not be any different in kind from surveillance cameras (which are increasingly ubiquitous)? Is the use of a drone reasonable under the circumstances (i.e., is there some serious crime or threat, or do they want to use drones to see who’s running red lights)? What are the possible ways the executive branch can abuse the technique, and can this potential be discouraged short of an outright ban?

My “ick” reaction to drones comes not from their association with CIA ops against Al Qaeda but simply from the fact that privacy generally seems to be disintegrating in the digital age. Why not eliminate one extra incursion if we can? This passage, recently flagged by Reason, comes to mind:

As Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ government secrecy project, put it: “The administration’s aggressive pursuit of leaks represents a challenge to the practice of national security reporting, which depends on the availability of unauthorized sources if it is to produce something more than ‘authorized’ news.”

What’s behind the administration’s fervor isn’t clear, but the news media have largely rolled over and yawned. A big reason is that prosecutors aren’t hassling reporters as they once did. Thanks to the post-9/11 explosion in government intercepts, electronic surveillance, and data capture of all imaginable kinds — the NSA is estimated to have intercepted 15-20 trillion communications in the past decade — the secrecy police have vast new ways to identify leakers.

So they no longer have to force journalists to expose confidential sources. As a national security representative told Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “We’re not going to subpoena reporters in the future. We don’t need to. We know who you’re talking to.”

Now that everyone has a cell phone and car with built-in GPS, I wonder how useful drones will prove to the cops by comparison. If you have probable cause to find out where someone is, there are faster and more precise ways of finding out technologically than by sticking a camera a few thousand feet up. In fact, if Google’s self-driving car catches on, cops might eventually be able to remotely commandeer a perp’s car if necessary. In a world where, according to cybersecurity experts, there’s not a single unclassified computer network in America that’s secure from hackers, drones seem an odd place to draw the line in the sand.

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