Big things can happen in Congress — as long as no one is watching.
Lobbying records released last week show that there wasn’t much opposition this winter when Congress quietly opened up U.S. airspace to aerial drones, which some advocates for civil liberties say raise a host of concerns about privacy.
Drone technology, advanced by the military for surveillance and elimination of terrorists in war zones, is set to come back to the home front in a big way in coming years, with possible uses for law enforcement, first responders, and agriculture and environmental monitoring.
Select companies and local governments around the country already have permission to test drones, which can sometimes stay aloft for days at a time at a fraction of the cost of helicopters and airplanes.
Several big manufacturers of “unmanned aircraft,” as the industry prefers to call them, each spent millions of dollars during the first quarter of this year, in part lobbying for language tucked inside the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration requiring the agency to allow drones into airspace with other planes in the next three years.
Another big push came from the military, which is preparing to bring home drones that were used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under current law, the military is restricted in moving drones around the country and using them for training operations.
The opposition to the bill was negligible, leaving its outcome virtually predetermined. The American Civil Liberties Union, which spent $500,000 on lobbying during the first quarter, listed privacy concerns with the bill among hundreds of other issues it was tracking. It was the only organization to do so.
“You can’t call it a fight if the other side doesn’t know about it,” said Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies drones. “The privacy caucus didn’t even realize until it was passed and they are now playing catch up.”
In a letter this week, the two chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus asked the FAA how it will license drones.
With a rapidly slimming defense budget, commercial drones could be a major new revenue generator for military contractors.
Among those pushing for the provision was Textron Inc., which spent $2.2 million lobbying in the first quarter on a variety of issues. The company makes military surveillance drones and has designed an unmanned ship for the Navy.
“We understand the concerns that the public has about privacy and safety,” said Stephen Greene, a company spokesman. “We really believe that a responsible plan is needed going forward.”
Other groups lobbying for the bill included the city of Mesa, Ariz., which is hoping to score one of six test sites, and the University of North Dakota, which has an undergraduate program in unmanned aircraft.
A representative for the main trade group representing manufacturers, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that local jurisdictions were the best place for laws protecting privacy because different communities could have different standards.
“As far as privacy is concerned, I’m not aware of any debate when the bill was being considered,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the group.
Critics of the legislation, which was passed in February, say the FAA is not equipped to regulate the issues raised by drones, which might carry cameras able to cover several square miles.
“The big concern is that drones can be used for good or bad,” said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They’re just a perfect vehicle for surveillance.”
Unmanned aircraft can be fitted with technology to intercept wireless communications or take pictures of a crowd that can be combined with facial recognition to identify individuals, Lynch said.
Other issues outside of the FAA’s traditional arena could arise from the use of unmanned aircraft, which in some cases have been adapted to commit crime and acts of terror. In one case last year, the FBI accused a Massachusetts man of plotting to fly explosive-laden drones into the Capitol and the Pentagon.
For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.