WASHINGTON -- More than a third of Americans worry their privacy will suffer if drones like those used to spy on U.S. enemies overseas become the latest police tool for tracking suspected criminals at home, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll.
Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with safety regulations that will clear the way for routine domestic use of unmanned aircraft within the next three years. The government is under pressure from a wide range of interests to open U.S. skies to drones. Oil companies want them to monitor pipelines. Environmentalists want them to count sea lions on remote islands. Farmers want them to fly over crops with sensors that can detect which fields are wet and which need watering. They're already being used to help fight forest fires. And the list goes on.
Manufacturers also are keen to cash in on what they expect to be a burgeoning new drone market. Government and commercial drone-related expenditures are forecast to total $89 billion worldwide over the next decade. On the leading edge of that new market are state and local police departments, who say that in many cases drones are cheaper, more practical and more effective than manned aircraft. Most of them would be small drones, generally weighing less than 55 pounds. They could be used, for example, to search for missing children or to scout a location ahead of a SWAT team.
But privacy advocates caution that drones equipped with powerful cameras, including the latest infrared cameras that can "see" through walls, listening devices and other information-gathering technology raise the specter of a surveillance society in which the activities of ordinary citizens are monitored and recorded by the authorities.
Nearly half the public, 44 percent, supports allowing police forces inside the U.S. to use drones to assist police work, but a significant minority -- 36 percent -- say they "strongly oppose" or "somewhat oppose" police use of drones, according to a survey last month.
When asked if they were concerned that police departments' use of drones for surveillance might cause them to lose privacy, 35 percent of respondents said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned." An almost identical share, 36 percent, said they were "not too concerned" or "not concerned at all."
Twenty-four percent said they were "somewhat concerned."
David Eisner, president of the constitution center in Philadelphia, said he was surprised by the level of support for police drone use.
"I had assumed that the idea that American police would be using the same technology that our military is using in Afghanistan would garner an almost hysterical response," Eisner said. Support for drone use "shows that people are feeling less physically secure than they'd like to because they are willing to accept fairly extreme police action to improve that security."
One poll respondent who said he has deep reservations about police use of drones was Tim Johnson, 55, a Houston real estate agent. He said he fears the data they gather will be misused, especially by other government agencies.
Pointing to the growing use of traffic cameras and Google's mapping programs, Johnson said he sees police use of drones as an extension of technology trends that are already eroding privacy.
"I Googled my house," Johnson said. "There's my car sitting in the driveway --you can see the license plate number. And my living room picture window, you can see right into my living room. You can see my pictures on the wall. If I had been standing there in my underwear you could see me in my underwear." Google said it tries to ensure privacy by blurring parts of images in its Street View feature.
"This information -- there is just too much of it," Johnson said. "I don't support any of it."
But Sheana Buchanan, 49, of Apple Valley, Calif., said she had no qualms about police using drones.
"I figure if you're doing something wrong, then you should be concerned about it," Buchanan said. "But if you're a law-abiding citizen, if you're concerned about safety ... and it's going to help catch the bad guys, have at it."