Poll: Catching criminals is fine, but don't use drones for speeding tickets, Americans say
The FAA says many universities, companies and government organizations are developing and producing 155 drone designs.
June 13th, 2012
02:30 PM ET

Poll: Catching criminals is fine, but don't use drones for speeding tickets, Americans say

Go ahead and use drones to track down criminals, to combat illegal immigration or for search-and-rescue missions. But to issue traffic citations?

No way, say Americans.

A recent Monmouth University poll showed there was overwhelming support for using unmanned aircraft in a variety of circumstances, but routine police work was not one of them.

Fewer than a quarter of the 1,708 adults surveyed last week said they would OK the use of drones to issue speeding tickets. Sixty-seven percent said they opposed the idea, and 10% had no opinion. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points (view a PDF here).

Compare that with the approval ratings for other drone applications: illegal immigration (64%), rescue missions (80%) and locating criminals (67%). The poll also indicates that 64% of Americans would be concerned about their privacy if U.S. law enforcement agencies began using drones with high-tech cameras.

Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which President Barack Obama signed in February, the Federal Aviation Administration is charged with developing a plan “for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

The act is in response to the strict FAA regulations on drone use. It loosens those restrictions, allowing many government agencies to get swifter FAA permission to operate the unmanned aerial vehicles. It also allows any "government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less," if certain criteria are met.

The FAA has authorized drone use for dozens of entities, including more than 20 universities, the U.S. military, local police forces, the FBI, NASA and the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy.

Drone uses vary greatly, according to an FAA document issued in March that outlines how drones will be used in six test ranges.

Not only can their objectives encompass everything from surveillance to searches to air quality testing, they can take many forms. Wingspans range from 6 inches to 240 feet. Weights run the gamut from 4 ounces to 16 tons.

"One thing they have in common is that their numbers and uses are growing dramatically. In the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities and government organizations are developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs,” according to the FAA.

The agency says it will select the test ranges in late 2012, with the first location becoming operational in 2013. The FAA currently has a test site at New Mexico State University, which it’s been using since June 2011.

There have been few incidents with domestic drone use, aside from an accident this month when a $176 million Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk went down in a marsh outside Salisbury, Maryland.

Outside the U.S., however, there has been widespread opposition to American reliance on drones to take out terrorists. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that the U.S. was the only country among 20 surveyed that approved of using drones to kill extremist leaders in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Sixty-two percent of Americans approved of the strikes. The only country with an approval rate rivaling the U.S. was Britain with 44% (47% disapproved). Approval ratings for the other 18 countries ranged from 5% in Greece to 38% in Germany.

A separate Pew survey in Pakistan showed equally ardent opposition, with 58% of those surveyed saying the strikes were unnecessary, 58% saying they are conducted without government approval and 93% saying the attacks kill too many innocent people.

In an April letter to the FAA’s acting administrator, Michael Huerta, the chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus said they had numerous concerns about how the drones would be used.

While lauding the benefits of deploying drones in U.S. airspace – including for “spotting wildfires and assessing natural disasters” – Reps. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Joe Barton, R-Texas, said “there is also the potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections."

“Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, thermal imagers, radar and wireless network ‘sniffers,’ ” the representatives wrote. “The surveillance power of drones is amplified when the information from on-board sensors is used in conjunction with facial recognition, behavior analysis, license plate recognition or any other system than can identify and track individuals as they go about their daily lives.”

The congressmen closed by asking several questions. Among them: How does the FAA grant temporary licenses? Who has been certified in the past? Have any applications been denied, and if so, why? Is the public notified about where the drones are used? Who operates the drones? What data are collected? How does the FAA plan to make its drone use transparent?

The American Civil Liberties union also chimed in last year, saying that as drones become increasingly cheaper, law enforcement would ramp up its use of the technology, according to the December report, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft.”

In the report, the watchdog group said drone usage should be limited to instances in which police believe they can collect evidence on a specific crime. If the drone will intrude on someone’s privacy, police should be required to obtain a warrant. There should also be restrictions on storing images of people, the ACLU said.

If the FAA cannot ensure people’s privacy, Congress should take action, the report demanded.

“The deployment of drone technology domestically could easily lead to police fishing expeditions and invasive, all-encompassing surveillance that would seriously erode the privacy that we have always had as Americans,” attorney Catherine Crump, one of the report’s co-authors, said.

In February, as the Senate considered HR 658 (the would-be FAA Modernization and Reform Act), the ACLU warned that Congress was trying to “fast-track domestic drone use” at the expense of Americans’ privacy.

In addition to concerns that unmanned aircraft crash more frequently than their manned counterparts, the ACLU said nothing in HR 658 addresses the “very serious privacy issues.”

“This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected," wrote senior policy analyst Jay Stanley.

“We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move.”

Overheard on CNN.com: Unmanned drones ignite domestic surveillance debate

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Filed under: Aviation • Crime • FAA • Politics • Technology • Terrorism • U.S.
soundoff (863 Responses)
  1. jiim in texas

    And then Skynet becomes self-aware and we're all screwed.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ChazH

    That we're even talking about this is scary enough, but, that many Americans advocate use of these monsters for domestic purposes is even scarier. Does "Big Brother" ring a bell??
    Once drones are in the air over American soil, Americans will get used to seeing them, and before long, they'll be used against the very people who supported the stupid idea. But, I won't feel sorry for them-I'll save my sympathy for those with enough sense to hate the idea.
    Good god, America-when you're grovelling in servitude and poverty to your corporate masters in the coming military-industrial-surveillance-dystopia, you'll deserve every bit of your misery.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AMERICA231134

    THIS IS REVOLUTIONARY FOR TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT

    WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO HIDE IF YOU ARE OBEYING THE TRAFFIC LAWS?

    GOD BLESS AMERICA AND GLOD BLESS DRONE TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Leo818

    What can you expect from an administration that thinks European style government is the answer? Using drones for border surveillance is not a bad idea, but it will surely blossom into other "necessary" uses unless the rules are very tight and strongly enforced. I surely do not trust government to do that.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. PK

    So talking on a cell phone is too distracting while driving but seeing a Drone over the freeway pacing motorists wouldn't be?

    June 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ChazH

    @Joe Friday
    I've encountered clueless before, but, you take the proverbial cake.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TomGI

    Rights of American citizens have gradually been compromised. Drones will soon fill the skies complete with advanced eavesdropping technology and new laws will be quickly passed to exclude them, their manufacturers and their users from any liability for misuse or damage to citizens. There is too much money (revenue) at stake not to let them run amok inside the USA. It will happen and is starting to happen now.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin H

      The potential for the use of these devices for police state like surveillance does exist. Like anything that could be weaponized my concern would be the potential of using them for dropping sarin or things like it on an unsuspecting population. I'd be particularly concerned if the drones became very stealthy – in other words no sound whatsoever. The simple logic here is that we need to make sound decisions – and as long as sound and sane reign we're just fine – however – let's never forget the Stalin's and Hitler's of the world. Yes we don't want to become silly and paranoid – yes they're already in use – yes something like them have been in use for years – I'm sure people thought weather balloons could do the same thing years ago. Probably when balloons hit the air in France back in the 18th century the intelligensia asked questions. The assumption we make is that sound people with sound reasoning make good policy decisions and we deal with the rest right? Let's not forget WMDB, let's not forget the lunacy after 09/11 – frightened people cook up the craziest ideas. So is it the drone or is it the people who decide how it will be used?

      June 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Larry David Sandwich

    The only Americans that I can possibly fathom being in favor of using drones on our own citizens is registered Democrats. They LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE the State.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Levelhead

    Spend $100's of millions to collect few hundred 1000's?. Makes no sense to me..

    June 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry David Sandwich

      That's how gubmint operates.

      June 13, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Gregg

    Part of the problem with upside down budgets is the overwhelming number of police officers. It has gotten out of hand. In my community of 8000 people we have TWO police departments, TWO police chiefs and 2 million dollars in the budget for all this un-needed law enforcement. All they do is give out speeding tickets and the vast majority to their own community. If we can launch one drone for a few hundred thousand we would be a million bucks ahead and still policing soccer moms doing 10 over.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • kman02

      Don't forget the heat-seaking missile up the tailpipe of drive-bys. Seriously. Drones? Come ON!

      June 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. LKS

    Lets just lift the walls that have been built underground and get on with Communism.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. visionarey

    The only reason We the People tolerate the traffic laws we do (with very little hard evidence about how these laws really affect safety) is because we rarely get a ticket due to the way the system works. This "game" we all play with traffic enforcement inventivizes us all to act responsibly behind the wheel more often than not, but the laws are not so draconian, secretive, and over-enforced that we feel like we are in chains. If the government begins to aggressively enforce these little laws with even more hidden big brother technology, as the tickets begin to pile up, the people will revolt against the system and strike down the laws. We are all like passive zebras near a watering hole, watching the occasional wildebeast getting taken by the lions. We allow it to happen occasionally for the greater good and we put up with it because it rarely happens. But if the lions start getting aggressive and start getting greedy in taking too many zebras, you can be sure the herd will rise up and defend itself.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin

      Hakuna Matata

      June 13, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bull13

    America...welcome to your police state. We let it happen...it's too late to complain now.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ed

    what a huge waste of money.......guess they want to bankrupt more cities?

    June 13, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • visionarey

      Bankrupt? No, this is a money maker for them. Ticket revenue would flow like wine if EVERY silly traffic and parking law were aggressively enforced. LA County is all over using this to raise cash in this budget strapped city.

      June 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • LKS

      ....well, that is just it. The idea between an idea and profit is a straight line. To make the human extinct to the robot. The revolution is certainly on the horizon and it don't look pretty.

      June 13, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. kevin

    Police already use helicopters for this exact purpose. If drones cost significantly less and carry better surveillance capabilities I don't see a problem. Laws requesting warrants for more invasive technologies that haven’t been used before might make sense, sure.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
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