Can Voters Fight Domestic Drones at the Ballot Box?

Referenda banning unmanned aerial spying by police agencies could save whole states from a future of pervasive surveillance.

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Does anyone else feel as though a majority of Americans are unenthusiastic about living in a surveillance state yet rapidly resigning themselves to the inevitability of living in a surveillance state? This is partly due to the proliferation of smart phones with cameras and the expectation of Google Glasses in our near future. Even excepting all government surveillance, the average American enjoys much less anonymity in public than they once did, and the trend is only intensifying. 

But domestic drones used by police agencies pose an unprecedented threat to privacy rights. As the ACLU puts it, "The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have typically enjoyed in their movements and privacy."

Adds Glenn Greenwald, "The belief that weaponized drones won't be used on US soil is patently irrational. Of course they will be. It's not just likely but inevitable. Police departments are already speaking openly about how their drones 'could be equipped to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun.' The drone industry has already developed and is now aggressively marketing precisely such weaponized drones for domestic law enforcement use." I fear he's right. How would the Branch Davidian standoff play out if it occurred five or ten years from today?

Greenwald argues that opposing a future of ubiquitous drone surveillance by the government "may be one area where an actual bipartisan/trans-partisan alliance can meaningfully emerge, as most advocates working on these issues with whom I've spoken say that libertarian-minded GOP state legislators have been as responsive as more left-wing Democratic ones in working to impose some limits." And federal limits on drone surveillance, like the warrant requirement before Congress, ought to be aggressively advocated by everyone who perceives the costs of failure.

What I wonder is if it would be effective to campaign for limits at the state and local levels too, especially in states that offer voters the ability to put initiatives on the ballot to be voted on by the people. Would Californians vote for an outright ban on drone use by law enforcement in the state? Or for strict warrant requirements? Or permission to operate only in emergency circumstances? Surely there's some set of populist restrictions voters would sign onto. And I presume, at this moment, that they'd pass a ban on weaponized drones, which haven't been normalized yet for use inside the United States, though absent a ban I suspect they eventually will be. 

California's drone lobby is growing in power every day -- the state is an aerospace industry hub -- so the ballot box may be a better bet than the legislature. It would be a huge civil-liberties win to ensure that at least state and local police won't spy from the sky on the nation's most populous jurisdiction. A total of 17 states permit residents to qualify constitutional amendments for the ballot box. Ubiquitous aerial surveillance is only inevitable if Americans in those places don't adequately oppose it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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