By Rob Schofield
The subject of unmanned aircraft systems — often referred to as “drones” — and their use in American airspace is obviously an enormously complex and controversial subject. In addition to simple safety concerns (a drone landed on the White House lawn earlier this year, for Pete’s sake!), the prospect of thousands of camera-equipped machines flying over private homes and businesses at the behest of the government and/or corporate interests raises all kinds of questions about privacy, the Fourth Amendment and, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously described it, “the right to be let alone.”
Add to this obvious reality the technological advances of recent years and the pressure on drone manufacturers to find new markets for their wares given the declining role of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s pretty obvious that this is a subject in need of serious public dialogue.
Americans may, in the end, decide that the advantages of drones — for public safety work, for agriculture and perhaps even for delivering Amazon packages — outweigh the safety and privacy concerns. If they do, though, it seems like a relatively modest request that such a decision take place after at least a reasonable measure of debate in which the pros and cons are publicly aired and sifted.
Unfortunately — especially given the feelings of paranoia that drones, by their very nature, tend to spur in a lot of people — open discussion and debate have not featured prominently in the equation in North Carolina. To the contrary, virtually all of the steps taken by state government in recent years in this important and potentially worrisome area have been shrouded in secrecy and mystery.
Consider the following: Last year, after reports surfaced detailing the close connections between the forces pushing for drone expansion (manufacturers, the military, law enforcement and the conservative corporate lobby group known as ALEC) and the folks championing the cause in the General Assembly, the issue seemed to disappear. Lawmakers, we were told, were going to study the issue.
Nearly six months later, however, the issue miraculously re-emerged in a “special provision” slipped anonymously into the state budget bill with no debate or discussion. As a result, a new law making it easier for drones to be used by law enforcement officers and others passed without debate.
Now fast-forward to the present.
House leaders have once again taken the extraordinary step of slipping another drone proposal into the omnibus budget bill. While the House did, to its credit, actually hear and pass a separate bill on the topic earlier this year before inserting it into the budget, the leaders seem uninterested in allowing the usual legislative process to run its course by allowing the Senate to take the matter up in a substantive committee that would feature public testimony and open debate.
What’s more, the new proposal includes some worrisome substantive provisions —perhaps most notably that it vests vast authority for approving drone operations (and even releasing personal information obtained via drone surveillance) in one person: North Carolina’s Chief Information Officer (or CIO) — a fellow named Chris Estes.
Estes, who in his role heads a branch of government known as the Office of Information and Technology Services, has no background as a judge, law enforcement officer or even an attorney. He came to the job instead after many years working for various corporate giants. Most recently, he was the head of the “Strategy, Technology, and Innovation practice” for the security and defense contractor Booz, Allen Hamilton. Add to this the close connections between North Carolina drone efforts and the U.S. military and the use of the former compound of the disgraced Blackwater outfit for testing, and the issue gets even murkier.
None of this, of course, is to necessarily insinuate some kind of nefarious conspiracy or even, for that matter, destructive motives. It is, however, to call attention to a major issue with potentially far-reaching and even dangerous implications that’s proceeding apace in our state with virtually zero public oversight or awareness.
A spokesperson for the conservative John Locke Foundation recently indicated that the group would favor, at a minimum, some additional protections to clarify what’s on and off limits to government drones. Let’s hope state lawmakers heed this obvious advice and that advocates for privacy don’t have to send in a drone of their own the next time they want to know what our elected officials are doing on this important subject.
Rob Schofield is the director of research and policy development at N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center.