Domestic drones

Stealthy technology has snuck up on Americans

Americans have mixed feelings about using unmanned drones in war zones. They keep American military personnel safer than other methods of surveillance and destruction of targets, including human targets. In waging war, that's a reasonable goal. Against such a decentralized enemy as al Qaeda, they can be more effective and less costly than other tactics.

Their use in killing Americans suspected of cooperating with terrorists ratchets up the discomfort level, as it should, but in that instance, the problem lies not with the drones but with the practice of executing American citizens without arrest or trial. That's certainly "effective," and far less costly; those advantages do not counter constitutional problems or moral objections. While Congress has the authority to set limits on the use of unmanned aircraft in waging war, legislators are likely to balance civilian objections with military testimony about the logic behind such tactics, and public outcry is not likely to be enough to change military policy quickly, if at all.

But when it comes to domestic uses of drones, Americans have every right to determine, collectively, where the line is drawn.

They could be used to guide firefighters, patrol the border, monitor climate and crops, create better mapping. Few would object to using surveillance aircraft, manned or remotely controlled, to search for a missing child. That's been a popular selling point, although not all "missing" children are simply lost in the woods.

Searching for fugitives like Christopher Dorner, suspected of carrying out a vendetta against members of the Los Angeles Police Department and their families, also seems unobjectionable, at least to a point. If a drone can help guide officers to capture Dorner before he harms anyone else, that will be a good thing. If it creates more chaos - considering that officers already have shot up two vehicles occupied by three people who simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time - the benefit seems dubious.

Not all fugitives are as dangerous as Dorner is alleged to be, yet drone technology is a fast, safe and relatively inexpensive way to gather a great deal of information, much of which is likely to be unrelated to the crime that provoked the search. The possibilities are diverse and largely arcane, yet allowing a government agency (or a private individual) essentially to spy from the air on American citizens suspected of no crime is a concept that bears careful consideration.

Again, drones are not, specifically, the problem. A piloted aircraft can accomplish the same surveillance. An incredible amount of information-gathering ability already exists, from satellites to computer programs that capture data to laws that enable such practices. A considerable amount of the technology involved only harvests and analyzes data that people offer up willingly, from their shopping preferences at the grocery store to the information and pictures they post on Facebook. Americans are not good at guarding their privacy. Google Earth already knows where you live, what car you park in your driveway, and whether you were sunbathing in the backyard when their satellite flew over. Anybody walking down the alley has access to garbage cans that probably hold personal data, and meth addicts made a growth industry of grabbing credit cards out of mailboxes.

Congressional passage of a bill that allows unmanned military, commercial and private drones in domestic airspace should provoke considerable debate - which would have been more useful before the bill passed, but apparently Congress looked on it as a detail in governing airspace, not as a potential privacy issue.

The drones are out there - at least as close as Mesa County. They are not inherently bad. (Neither is government.) But the concerns are out there too, and Americans who value their privacy ought to be paying much closer attention to the proliferation of high-tech eyes in the sky.