Q. Does the public support the use of domestic drones?

In terms of the American public, which has generated the most extensive opinion data, Americans are generally supportive of using armed drones for counterterrorism abroad, but are more ambivalent when it comes to the use of drones for law enforcement and domestic surveillance. While 44% of Americans approve of using drones to assist with police work, 36% disapprove, and 17% are neutral. Of those queried about domestic drones 35% indicated that they were extremely or very concerned about the potential loss of privacy from police surveillance compared to 36% that were not concerned (another 24% indicated that they were somewhat concerned). The CEO of the National Constitution Center, David Eisner, indicated that he "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." He attributed this attitude to the populace's sense of insecurity and willingness to trade off civil liberties in exchange for more security.59

A year later, in a different poll, 65% of Americans reported opposition to the use of unmanned drones by police agencies in the United States.60 Similar concerns were raised several months later when 58% of Americans expressed that police departments were "going too far" in their use of "drones, military weapons and armored vehicles," with only 37% indicating that these technologies were necessary.61

A more detailed set of polls helped unpack the aspects of drones by law enforcement that individuals find objectionable. Table 5.1 summarizes poll responses for a range of activities involving the use of drones. As the table suggests, Americans tend to support drones for security and humanitarian purposes but not for police activities that might have adverse impacts on them, such as issuing speeding tickets. They are also more leery of armed drones than the unarmed drones; for instance, support for armed drones in the service of border control generated far less support than when the drones in question were not specified as armed or unarmed—implying that they were unarmed.

Table 5.1 Public Support for Drones for the Purposes of Law Enforcement, by Activity

Question: "Use of Drones to ..."

Support

Oppose

Don't

Know

Issue speeding tickets

21%

72%

6%

Control illegal immigration

62%

30%

8%

Help with search and rescue missions

83%

11%

6%

Help hostage situations (armed

52%

38%

9%

drones specified)

Patrol border (armed

44%

49%

8%

drones specified)

Source: Monmouth University Polling Institute, field dates July 25-30, 2013.

These polls lend some credence to the public's view that domestic drones should be used to bolster security at home while remaining nonintrusive on a day-to-day basis. A separate poll by Duke University and the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions corroborated this intuition. In their poll 67% of the public supported drones for homeland security, 63% for fighting crime, and as high as 88% for search and rescue. Sixty-seven percent of individuals, however, expressed considerable concern about monitoring in public spaces, and 65% are concerned with the potential safety issues of frequent domestic drone use by law enforcement. Support was considerably lower at 26% for the use in traffic violations.62 The concerns intimated in these studies track fairly closely with the concerns raised by civil liberties groups who worry that drones raise potential privacy issues. The ACLU defends its concerns by citing the Fourth Amendment tenet that people have the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The US government's Congressional Research Service similarly cautioned that "the prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues" in its report on domestic drone use.63

 
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