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Editorial: Don’t let sky spies roam unchecked

SWAT team members with drone Montgomery County Texas.  |  AP

SWAT team members with a drone in Montgomery County, Texas. | AP

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:10AM

Don’t look now, but the next big challenge to our privacy could be from flocks of overhead drones.

Using steadily improving technology, drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — will be able to keep better and better tabs on us. That feeling of seclusion you might have when you escape the reach of today’s surveillance cameras and cellphone towers will evaporate.

We’re not arguing against all uses of domestic drones because they could be useful tools to search for missing people, track criminals and monitor infrastructure and the environment.

But now is the time to lay down privacy safeguards.

Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to devise regulations to keep drones from interfering with other aircraft. Why not draw up strict privacy guidelines at the same time?

Already, thousands of security cameras track us as we move about the city. Police scoop up cellphone records that show every place our phones have been. Private companies are in the act, too. Last week, seven computer rental companies agreed to stop using webcams to secretly capture information, including intimate activities in customers’ homes.

Drones designed for law enforcement already are being marketed in the United States. Manufacturer AeroVironment calls its public safety drone, the Qube, an “eye in the sky at a fraction of the cost.” Britain’s defense minister said this week drones should be a part of the police toolkit.

But it will be hard to regulate drones once they’re already flying America’s skies in large numbers. Government tends to be opaque when it comes to security capabilities. Even a law that simply would have required governments to report the number of security cameras they operate couldn’t make it through Springfield.

Let’s get rules in place now.

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