Debate, Week 3: Civilian Drones in the United States

Students in the summer offering of my Introduction to American Politics course were assigned to write their final paper on one of three contemporary political debates in the United States – the legalization of marijuana, access to guns, and the use of civilian drones. You can find the discussion about legalizing marijuana here and gun control here.

This week, my students discuss the use of civilian drones in the United States. When students in the class were asked in a survey where or not it is acceptable for the American government to monitor communications from American citizens, 36% agreed that this is acceptable, 53% disagreed, and 11% reported not knowing. As the responses suggest, Americans know very little about drone use, government policy, or their rights.

Heavily Regulate Drone Use

Response 1, Taylor P*

In recent decades drone use has increased dramatically. Drones have a wide variety of applications for individuals and the government such as, “environmental monitoring, tracking of livestock and wildlife, measurement of meteorological and geophysical phenomena, and observation of large-scale human constructions such as buildings, energy infrastructure such as electricity networks and gas and water pipelines, and road-, air- and sea-traffic”(Clarke 2014, 286). Although many people believe that these applications have positive impacts, others believe drone surveillance is detrimental to the privacy of people and infringes upon our Fourth Amendment rights. Some people are convinced that drones are harmful to our civil liberties by disproportionately targeting minorities and “other usual suspects” (Wright 2012,184). Others believe drones are actively hostile towards individuals. No matter which argument you agree with, more regulations need to be implemented to restrict drone use.

While the debate about drone use is ongoing, David Wright (2012) takes the stance that while drones can be useful, it is more important to provide privacy to individuals. Privacy is a major concern due to the fact that drones are targeting their surveillance upon the “already marginalized populations” to monitor their whereabouts and activities (Wright 2012, 194). According to Wright, drones do not have regulations or laws in place that effectively limit the activity of drones. The Fourth Amendment does not “protect already marginalized individuals and populations from disproportionate surveillance by Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (Wright 2012, 193). Specifically, drone surveillance has been used to single out “the poor, people of color and anti-government protesters” when monitoring large crowds, such as in drone surveillance monitored political rallies in New York and Washington D.C. (Wright 2012, 188). Wright’s stance on the position of drone use is that drones can effectively help make the United States a safer and better place; however, in order to make citizens feel safe with the use of drones, we need to regulate what drones can do to protect the privacy of individuals and keep individuals safe from discriminatory practices. 

Roger Clark (2014) states that drones are actively hostile to people’s privacy. He compares the use of drones to multiple “deeply intrusive” violent acts “into personal space, and is akin to stalking” (Clark 2014, 289). Clark discusses the origin of the word surveillance and the history behind its use “to detect particular behavior and identify individuals of interest” (Clark 2014, 288). In every example surveillance has been used to assert some kind of authority over citizens. In a metaphorical sense, drones bring back this image of superiority to the government. Clark clearly outlines ten consequences of using drones, and he concludes that “negative impacts arise at the psychological level on individuals, at the social level on groups and societies, at the economic level on innovators, and at the political level on democracies” and that drones only exacerbate these concerns (Clark 2014, 290).

After taking into consideration the harmful consequences and positive outcomes of drone use, I have come to the conclusion that drones should be heavily monitored and should only be accessible to certain governmental authorities. I believe more regulations need to be in place so civilians cannot utilize them and so governmental authorities are held accountable. I have come to this conclusion because the laws in place are “not likely to pose much of a hurdle to the domestic use of drones for surveillance” (Calo 2013, 1). The reason for minimal regulatory laws are due to the “fair information practices’ (FIPs) model” that protect government and businesses rather than protecting individuals (Clarke 2014, 296). Drones fall in between many different types of legislation so it makes it hard to regulate them. Since drones are difficult to place under pre-existing regulations, I would make a law just for drones and make specific regulations for them. Some people believe drones are a dangerous threat toward our privacy, others believe they are a symbol of progress and help our society. I believe, however, that drones can be useful but only as long as regulations are in place to protect our civil liberties.

Government Should Educate Citizens on Drone Use

Response 2, Luke R*

The widespread use of drones in recent years by civilians and police has sparked a debate on the effect of drones on people’s privacy. With an estimated 30,000 drones to be used in domestic operation by 2020, the concern of people losing privacy will only increase (Drones Can Be Scary, 2015). Proponents of widespread drone use point to its benefits such as monitoring oil spills and dusting crops (Drones With an Eye on the Public Cleared to Fly, 2015). On the other side of the spectrum, people point to the negatives of drone use, such as the recent controversial case in Kentucky. A man threatened by a drone flying over his property decided to shoot it down because of his concern for the privacy of his family. The drone’s owner perhaps shouldn’t have flown over this man’s property, but did this justify his drone being shot down? It is my opinion that the widespread use of drones will be beneficial to our society, but it will have to be highly regulated to protect the privacy and safety of United States citizens.

"Phantom/GoPro Camera Quadcopter Drone" by Kevin Baird (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Phantom/GoPro Camera Quadcopter Drone” by Kevin Baird (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are many benefits to drone use. The first organization to tap the potential of drones was the U.S. military. The military used them “in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. They provide troops with a 24-hour “eye in the sky”, seven days a week.” (Drones: What Are They and How Do They Work, 2015). They were meant to protect the lives of soldiers while also targeting people who were a threat to the United States. The militaries success in using drones has led to police use of drones. In 2011, police searched for three men who had threatened a police officer. Without the help of the drone’s sophisticated sensors, the police may never have found the suspects were somewhere on a 3,000 acre-spread (Police Employ Predator Drone Spy Planes on Home Front, 2015). It is clear that in the hands of people who are protecting the well being of civilians, drones can be very beneficial to society. Should there be limits to what should and shouldn’t be allowed with drone use?

Somewhat similar to the case that happened in Kentucky happened in New Jersey. A man was harmlessly flying a drone over his friend’s property, trying to film his friend’s house that was under construction; a bullet hit his drone. Neighbors were threatened by the drone even though it wasn’t flown over their property (My Neighbor Blasted My Drone With a Shotgun, 2015). This situation brings up several points. First, it is obvious that people are very concerned about their privacy and safety even when drones don’t pose them any harm. Second, this sort of situation could also lead to an unfortunate gun accident. Lastly, it is clear that most people do not know the rules and regulations on where drones can and cannot be flown.

Since drones are relatively new for civilian use, many people don’t know how to react to them when they see them. I believe the government should establish clear laws on when, where and how drones should be flown so people know the exact boundaries that they are allowed to fly their drones. The government should also pass laws to prevent the shooting of drones if they are over their property and instead have them call the authorities. This would help prevent any sort of gun injury to innocent bystanders. Also, people who would like to purchase drones should obtain a license just as people who want a gun have to. Educating people about drones and setting laws to protect civilian’s privacy and the safe use of drones could hopefully solve this contemporary dilemma.

Individual Privacy Must be Protected

Response 3, Christopher W*

For nearly a century Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have filled the skies around the globe. Developed out of a need for combat and surveillance in military conflict, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones”, have proved useful in saving lives as well as sourcing critical intel on the battlefield. However, recent developments in technology becoming more widely available, drones have fallen into the civilian sector opening avenues to business and personal use (Atherton, 2014). This expanse into civilian hands has not come without drawbacks. According to a 2012 New York Times online discussion titled, “Civilian Drones in the United States”, journalists, professors, and legal directors alike have agreed that drones have brought complications concerning civilians right to privacy. With limited legislation, debate has formed over what policies and to what extent drones need to be regulated. Some argue that there already exists more than enough privacy protection in America without the need for exclusive drone policy addendums. On the other side of the debate, opponents claim that more needs to be done, as current legislation fails to fully protect the right to privacy.

While both sides agree that drones are a permanent and growing trend among civilians, evidence suggests there is not enough legislation in place to protect the right to privacy for civilians. A closer inspection of the Fourth Amendment under the United States Constitution, as well as an analysis of current national law on drone policy, would suggest that legislation is outdated and inadequate for protecting the domestic privacy of civilians.

As set forth by the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment explicitly states that the people have the right against, “unreasonable searches and seizures” (Constitution U.S., amend. IV). While seemingly sufficient enough to protect civilians from unwanted surveillance, a Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems article points out that federal law under the Fourth Amendment has a loop hole in regards to aerial surveillance. While it is unconstitutional to observe the exterior of a home using technology without warrant, the Fourth Amendment does not protect against aerial warrantless surveillance, that is, anywhere that can be observed by the naked eye from an aerial vehicle in public airspace (Matiteyahu 2014, 275). It is apparent that while ground surveillance of a person’s property without warrant is considered unconstitutional and therefore an act of trespassing, the aerial nature of drones allows them not only to bypass physical barriers protecting a person’s property from onlookers, but also to bypass constitutional law that protects against trespassing. If drones thus are able to avoid cases of warrantless trespassing, the integrity of Fourth Amendment’s protection can be called into question as to whether it is sufficient enough to justly prevent unreasonable searches of a person’s property. In this case it is not sufficient enough to protect a civilian’s expected right to privacy from unreasonable searches.

To further affirm the lack of privacy protection, little national legislation has been successfully passed to suffice for the inadequate protection. As stated in a 2014 article in Computer Law & Security Review, drones within the United States are mainly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. While the FAA may choose to consider other factors regarding drones aside from monitoring and regulating air safety, such as civilian’s right to privacy, the administration is not required to set forth any regulation concerning other factors (Clarke, 2014). With a focus mainly on drone safety and integration into public and commercial airspace, the FAA has done next to nothing to provide legislation focused on protecting privacy. At most, the American Civil Liberties Union has reported that political advances are being made at the state level to restrict the use of government drones and to push for national legislation, but the fact remains that civilian controlled drones are unregulated and a threat to privacy on a national scale (ACLU, 2015).

With advancing technology pushing drones into commercial and public affairs, civilians worry that the integrity of their right to privacy is at stake. Among an evident lack of protection under the U.S. Constitution and limited national legislation to protect that right, more intention and resolution needs to be put forth in order to provide the adequate level of privacy and peace of mind from unwanted domestic drone surveillance that current regulation fails to provide.


What about you? What are your thoughts on the use of civilian drones in the United States? Leave your comments below.

*Responses shared with written permission from the authors. Replication in any form, without permission from the author, is prohibited.


  1. Taylor’s paper:
    1. Calo, Ryan. “Drones Can Be Scary, and Useful.” New York Times 6 Sept. 2013, Room forDebate sec. Web. 21 July 2015.
    2. Clarke, Roger. “The Regulations of Civilian Drones’ Impact on Behavioural Privacy.” ComputerLaw & Security Review 30 (2014): 286-305. Accessed July 21, 2015.
    3. Wright, D. (2012). Unmanned aircraft systems: Surveillance, ethics and privacy in civilapplications. Computer Law and Security Review, 28, 184-194. Retrieved July 14, 2015, fromScience Direct.
  2. Luke’s paper:
    1. Baker, Peter, and Julie Davis. “Amid Errors, Obama Publicly Wrestles With Drones’ Limits.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 July 2015.
    2. “Drones: What Are They and How Do They Work? – BBC News.” BBC News. Web. 14 July 2015.
    3. “Drones With an Eye on the Public Cleared to Fly – The New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
    4. “Drones Can Be Scary, and Useful –” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
    5. “Police Employ Predator Drone Spy Planes on Home Front.” Latimes. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
    6. “My Neighbor Blasted My Drone With a Shotgun.” Motherboard. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
  3. Christopher’s paper:
    1. ACLU. (2015). Legislation Would Require Warrants And Transparency For Law Enforcement’s Use of Drone in NJ. ACLU News. retrieved from:    cheers-passage-drone-privacy-bill-assembly-urges-senate-follow-suit-yes-vote
    2. Atherton, K. D. (2014) The Histroy of the Drone in 9 Minutes. Popular Science. Video. retrieved            from:
    3. ‘Civilian Drones in the United States’. (2012) The New York Times. retrieved from: 
    4. Clarke, R. ( 2014). The regulation of civilian drones’ impacts on behavioural privacy.         Computer Law & Security Review: the International Journal of Technology, 30, 3, 286-          305.
    5. Constitution of the United States. Amendment IV. retrieved from:
    6. Matiteyahu, T. (2015). Drone Regulations and Fourth Amendment Rights: The Interaction           of State Drone Statutes and the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy. Columbia Journal Of            Law & Social Problems, 48(2), 265-307.

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