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WASHINGTON - The prospect that thousands of drones could be patrolling U.S. skies by the end of this decade is raising the specter of a Big Brother government that peers into backyards and bedrooms.
The worries began mostly on the political margins, but there are signs that ordinary people are starting to fret that unmanned aircraft could soon be circling overhead.
When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, suggested during a radio interview last month that the unmanned drones be used by police domestically since they have done such a good job on foreign battlefields, the political backlash was swift.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which provides legal assistance in support of civil liberties and conservative causes, warned the governor, "America is not a battlefield, and the citizens of this nation are not insurgents in need of vanquishing."
Some of the demand for greater drone access to civilian airspace comes from the military, which will bring home unmanned aircraft from Afghanistan and wants room to test and use them. But the potential civilian market for drones may eventually eclipse military demand.
Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential. Police departments want them to chase crooks, conduct search and rescue missions and catch speeders.
There's concern as well among liberal civil liberties advocates that government and private-sector drones will be used to gather information on Americans without their knowledge. A lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco, whose motto is "defending your rights in the digital world," forced the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year to disclose the names of dozens of public universities, police departments and other government agencies that have been awarded permission to fly drones in civilian airspace on an experimental basis.
Earlier this year Congress, under pressure from the Defense Department and the drone manufacturers, ordered the FAA to give drones greater access to civilian airspace by 2015. Besides the military, the mandate applies to drones operated by the private sector and civilian government agencies, including federal, state and local law enforcement.
Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to "a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities," the American Civil Liberties Union warned last December in a report.
Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will probably be asked about the issue when he testifies at a Senate hearing Thursday.
The anxiety has spilled over into Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been meeting to discuss legislation that would broadly address the civil liberty issues raised by drones.
A provision in a defense spending bill would prohibit information gathered by military drones without a warrant from being used as evidence in court. A provision added to another bill would prohibit the Homeland Security Department from arming its drones, including ones used to patrol the border.
Bills have been introduced to prohibit any government agency from using a drone to "gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation" without a warrant.
"They might just say we'd be safer from muggings if we had constant surveillance crisscrossing the street all the time. But then the question becomes, what about jaywalking? What about eating too many donuts? What about putting mayonnaise on your hamburger? Where does it stop?" asked Sen. Rand Paul.
The backlash has drone makers concerned. The drone market is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years, from current worldwide expenditures of nearly $6 billion annually to more than $11 billion, with police departments accounting for a significant part of that growth.
"We go into this with every expectation that the laws governing public safety and personal privacy will not be administered any differently for (drones) than they are for any other law enforcement tool," said Dan Elwell, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Fear that some drones may be armed has been fueled in part by a county sheriff's office in Texas that used a homeland security grant to buy a $300,000, ShadowHawk helicopter drone for its SWAT team. The drone can be equipped with a 40mm grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun.
Randy McDaniel, chief deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, told The Associated Press earlier this year his office had no plans to arm the drone, but he left open the possibility the agency may decide to adapt the drone to fire tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.