National Security

Domestic Drones


Download a printable one-page PDF of Drones and Domestic Surveillance: A civil liberties briefing.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles controlled by a human operator. They are used by both the government and private sector for a variety of purposes: from scientific research to agriculture to military operations. Domestic drone use is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Thus far, the FAA has proceeded cautiously, permitting only a small number of domestic law enforcement agencies to operate drones. However, there is increasing pressure from industry, law enforcement, and some in Congress to permit more domestic drones and expand their use.

Privacy Risks
Drone use creates many privacy concerns, including:

  • Increased surveillance. The high cost of manned aircraft has always imposed a limit on the government’s aerial surveillance capacity. The low cost and flexibility of drones erode that limit.
  • More invasive technology. Increasing technology, such as high powered night vision cameras and see-through imaging, provide more and better detail and exacerbate privacy issues.
  • Threats to free speech. Surveillance curtails individual liberty and freedom by placing Americans under constant scrutiny. Innocent people may fear punishment if they exercise their First Amendment rights on issues where they do not agree with the government.
  • Misuse of data. Local and federal law enforcement agencies routinely store all kinds of data on Ohioans. Without limits on data retention and sharing, we risk the creation of databases that facilitate the pervasive, permanent monitoring of innocent Ohioans.

Need for Guidelines
The Heritage Foundation, the International
Association of Chiefs of Police
, the national Republican Party, and the ACLU all agree that guidelines on domestic drone use will help protect against unreasonable government intrusion.

National Trends
Currently, there is a surge of activity in state legislatures all over the nation aimed at regulating domestic drone use. To date, approximately 95-percent of these bills include a requirement that law enforcement officials get a warrant before using drones in their investigations.

Ohio Legislation
Currently, there are two bills pending in the General Assembly that would provide guidelines for drone use by governmental agencies:

  1. H.B. 207: Permits law enforcement to operate drones for evidence and information collection after a search warrant is obtained; in an emergency; or when necessary to thwart a terrorist attack.
  2. S.B. 189: Permits state employees to operate drones after a search warrant is obtained or in an emergency; codifies limits on data retention; bans weapons on drones; and establishes a reporting requirement for drone operations.

The ACLU of Ohio supports both of these bills, which work proactively to balance civil liberties and public safety.