If the Feds can use drones to watch what’s going on, so can everybody else.
That’s essentially the thinking that lies behind a recent surge in new coursework at a handful of journalism schools, where future reporters are learning how to use observation drones to get close to events in a way an individual often can’t.
Under the present iteration of the FAA Reauthorization Act, it’s illegal for commercial entities (well, at least those without a defense contract) to fly drones until 2015. But public universities such as the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri don’t fall under that restriction. These and other universities engage drone technology across several of their academic departments — mostly those dealing in applied sciences, but journalism is starting to get in on the action.
At the University of Missouri’s prestigious journalism school, students and faculty describe potential news-gathering uses for drone technology in pretty benign terms. One of the Missouri professors keeps his comments on how the media can use drone tech pretty far on this side of the invisible line that, doubtless, the current President and the Department of Justice are carefully waiting for someone to test on 1st Amendment grounds.
“We have a class here of journalism students who are learning to fly J-bots, for journalism robots, or drones,” Professor William Allen told ABC News. “So they learn to fly them, and also do what reporters do: brainstorm ideas, go out and do reporting, do drone based photography and video. We’re trying to see if this is going to be useful for journalism.”
He knows it will be useful for journalism, if lawmakers don’t snatch away the ability for media (or any inquisitive citizen) to begin employing drones in similar watchful fashion as law enforcement already is doing.
The question, though, is whether lawmakers will let it happen. Can Congress treat domestic drone policy with the fair play required to preserve Americans’ rights to keep pace with what it allows the executive branch to get away with?
Remarkably, Congressional talk (in these post-Rand-Paul-filibuster days) over where America’s domestic drone policy is heading has tended toward bipartisan concern over how the coming proliferation of drones threatens to infringe citizens’ Constitutional liberties. The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed domestic drones’ future Wednesday, with Republican and Democratic Senators (including Dianne Feinstein) alike voicing their skepticism that drones and individual liberty can easily coexist.
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed resignedly accommodating of all forms of Orwellian surveillance when he asked a local radio audience on Friday: “It’s scary, but what’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building? I mean, intellectually, I’d have trouble making the distinction.”
Access and mobility for starters, moron: That’s, intellectually, the distinction. Drones can follow you. Some of them can do far, far more than watch you.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to coax an updated list of entities presently authorized to maintain and use drones. An interactive map describing each location can be accessed here; it is current through October of last year. Under present laws, it’s of course filled with public entities of various kinds.
Here’s hoping it either disappears entirely (not likely) or becomes a bit more balanced, once Federal Aviation Administration guidelines have been revised.