Drones patrolling US skies spawn anxiety

Washington - The prospect that thousands of drones could be patrolling US skies by the end of this decade is raising the spectre of a Big Brother government that peers into backyards and bedrooms.

The worries began mostly on the political margins, but there are signs that ordinary people are starting to fret that unmanned aircraft could soon be circling overhead.

Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican congressman from Louisiana's coastal bayou country, said constituents have stopped him while shopping to talk about it.

"There is a distrust amongst the people who have come and discussed this issue with me about our government," Landry said. "It's raising an alarm with the American public".

Another Republican first-termer, Republican Austin Scott, said he first learned of the issue when someone shouted out a question about drones at a Republican Party meeting in his Georgia congressional district two months ago.

An American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist, Chris Calabrese, said that when he speaks to audiences about privacy issues generally, drones are what "everybody just perks up over".

"People are interested in the technology, they are interested in the implications and they worry about being under surveillance from the skies," he said.

Some of the demand for greater drone access to civilian airspace comes from the military, which will bring home unmanned aircraft from Afghanistan and wants room to test and use them. But the potential civilian market for drones may eventually eclipse military demand.

Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential. Police departments want them to chase crooks, conduct search and rescue missions and catch speeders.

Fascist

The level of apprehension about growing drone use is especially high in the conservative blogosphere, where headlines blare "30 000 Armed Drones to be Used Against Americans" and "Government Drones Set to Spy on Farms in the United States."

When Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell, a Republican, suggested during an interview on a Washington radio station last month that drones be used by police domestically since they've done such a good job on foreign battlefields, the political backlash was swift.

NetRightDaily complained: "This seems like something a fascist would do. ... McDonnell isn't pro-Big Government, he is pro-HUGE Government."

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute., which provides legal assistance in support of civil liberties and conservative causes, warned the governor, "America is not a battlefield, and the citizens of this nation are not insurgents in need of vanquishing."

There's concern as well among liberal civil liberties advocates that government and private-sector drones will be used to gather information on Americans without their knowledge.

A lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco, whose motto is "defending your rights in the digital world," forced the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year to disclose the names of dozens of public universities, police departments and other government agencies that have been awarded permission to fly drones in civilian airspace on an experimental basis.

Giving drones greater access to US skies moves the nation closer to "a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities," the ACLU warned last December in a report


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