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Drones in domestic surveillance operations: Fourth Amendment implications and legislative responses

6 September 2012

The prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft that can fly without an onboard human operator. An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is the entire system, including the aircraft, digital network, and personnel on the ground. Drones can fly either by remote control or on a predetermined flight path; can be as small as an insect and as large as a traditional jet; can be produced more cheaply than traditional aircraft; and can keep operators out of harm’s way. These unmanned aircraft are most commonly known for their operations overseas in tracking down and killing suspected members of Al Qaeda and related organizations. In addition to these missions abroad, drones are being considered for use in domestic surveillance operations, which might include in furtherance of homeland security, crime fighting, disaster relief, immigration control, and environmental monitoring.

Although relatively few drones are currently flown over U.S. soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that 30,000 drones will fill the nation’s skies in less than 20 years. Congress has played a large role in this expansion. In February 2012, Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (P.L. 112-95), which calls for the FAA to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by 2015. However, some Members of Congress and the public fear there are insufficient safeguards in place to ensure that drones are not used to spy on American citizens and unduly infringe upon their fundamental privacy. These observers caution that the FAA is primarily charged with ensuring air traffic safety, and is not adequately prepared to handle the issues of privacy and civil liberties raised by drone use.

This report assesses the use of drones under the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness. A reviewing court’s determination of the reasonableness of drone surveillance would likely be informed by location of the search, the sophistication of the technology used, and society’s conception of privacy in an age of rapid technological advancement. While individuals can expect substantial protections against warrantless government intrusions into their homes, the Fourth Amendment offers less robust restrictions upon government surveillance occurring in public places and perhaps even less in areas immediately outside the home, such as in driveways or backyards. Concomitantly, as technology advances, the contours of what is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment may adjust as people’s expectations of privacy evolve.