CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Warning that no steps have been taken on either the federal or state level to establish effective safeguards for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is urging Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, to rectify that oversight by approving a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within the Commonwealth in order to ensure that lawmakers have the time necessary to educate themselves on the use of drone technology within the Commonwealth, assess its impact on the rights of Virginians, and take whatever steps are needed to protect citizens from these aerial, robotic threats to privacy, safety and security. Whitehead has also called on the governor to establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to explore and address concerns relating to the domestic use of drones.
Whitehead’s letter to McDonnell comes in the wake of the Virginia General Assembly’s passage of Virginia House Bill 2012, which would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drone technology within the Commonwealth. Rutherford Institute attorneys have drafted and made available to state and local legislatures model legislation aimed at preventing police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibiting the government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions.
“The urgency of formulating legislative safeguards to address the rapid, uncritical adoption of drone technology around the country cannot be understated,” said Whitehead. “No matter where one stands on the issue of drone use domestically, it is clear that we need to take a well-reasoned approach to how drone technology will be implemented and what safeguards are necessary to ensure that Americans’ safety, privacy, and civil liberties are not jeopardized.”
The FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2012, authorized the use of drones domestically for a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate. Prior to this, drones had been confined to military use in the battlefields over Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as attorney John Whitehead points out, without proper safeguards, these drones, some of which are deceptively small and capable of videotaping the facial expressions of people on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, will usher in a new age of surveillance in American society. Not even those indoors, in the privacy of their homes, will be safe from these aerial spies, which can be equipped with technology capable of peering through walls. In addition to their surveillance capabilities, drone manufacturers have confirmed that drones can also be equipped with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, tear gas, and tasers. Many local police departments throughout the country, including in Florida and California, have already begun utilizing drones in police procedures without any real regulations in place. Virginia House Bill 2012, which was passed overwhelmingly by both houses in the General Assembly, would prohibit state and local law enforcement from using drone technology until July 1, 2015. The issue has become the topic of national and international attention, especially since, at the urging of The Rutherford Institute, the City of Charlottesville became the first city in the nation to call for limits on the use of drone technology by state and local law enforcement agencies. The City of Seattle has since followed suit, with its mayor ordering the police department to abandon its plan to use drones altogether. Lawmakers in at least eleven states are considering legislation to restrict the use of drones.