In February, President Barack Obama signed a bill that legalized unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. The Supreme Court paved the way for drone surveillance in 1986, when Police using a private plane viewed a marijuana farm located on private property. The Supreme Court ruled that their tactics did not violate the Fourth Amendment from the Bill of Rights since the plane was used in a public airspace.
The drones being developed today use solar power and move at low speeds as they collect data using high-resolution cameras. They can propel themselves through the stratosphere at altitudes of 40,000 to 150,000 feet. For comparison, commercial airliners tend to fly around 40,000 or lower. The higher altitudes tend to be reserved for weather balloons, scientific research and military reconnaissance aircraft.
There is a British company that has pioneered the research that has led to the most advanced drone technology available today. One drone weighs less than 120 pounds and has a 74-foot wingspan. Boeing has also been developing drones that will be able to fly more at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet for years at a time.
Surveillance is nothing new. Satellites can provide us with highly detailed looks at specific targets, but drones have an advantage that allows them to maneuver more precisely, hover and provide coverage of entire cities at a time, including pedestrians, vehicles and even homes. This data can then be coordinated with information from mobile devices that allows the government or other operatives to closely watch and record virtually everything we do.
Although drone surveillance offers the promise of increased safety and protection from criminals, many people are concerned about potential privacy violations. Although the government is not currently promoting a plan to monitor American cities, drone technology will soon be readily available, including the possibility of armed drones. States are beginning to take action by drafting legislation to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems, and the ACLU recommends that they should only be deployed when a warrant has been issued, and that data should only be retained when there is reasonable suspicion that it may contain evidence or be relevant to an investigation.