Can We Make Pittsburgh a Drone Free City?

by Scilla Wahrhaftig

In February, by resolution of City Council, Charlottesville Virginia became the first city in the country banning drones. The resolution means that Charlottesville will be a no-drone zone and the use of drones for surveillance and other uses will not be permitted.

As we consider the increased use of drones by the United States to target potential terrorists overseas and the impact on people in the countries where they are being used we also need to be aware of their increased use in this country and what that will mean for US citizens. There is deep concern about President Obama’s claim to be able to deploy unmanned drones to kill Americans on American soil if they are suspected terrorists.

Drones are already being deployed on the border and some police departments already have drones. Montgomery County, Texas has purchased a Vanguard Shadow Hawk with money from Homeland Security which is equipped with sophisticated cameras and capable of firing rubber bullets, ejecting tear gas canisters and launching taser projectiles.

The recent decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to open our skies up to drones has meant that thousands of applications from police departments, corporations and universities have been filed. The requests are for drones of every size from ones as small as a hummingbird to ones the size of those being used overseas and for all sorts of purposes. The FAA predicts that 30,000 of these will fly domestically in less than 20 years.

Some of these drones can stay in the sky for as long as 20 hours and are being equipped with rubber bullets and tasers. There are contracts between the Department of Defense and companies that are developing facial recognition technology for use on drones that will be able to identify individual people easily. They are also talking about high tech sensors that can see through walls.

The reality is that drones are here to stay whether we like it or not. Some of them will be used for harmless domestic use in mapping or farming, but in a culture where surveillance is becoming the norm we must put in place ways to protect society. The ACLU has issued a report recommending the following safeguards:

USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.

DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.

ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.

WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Now is the time to put in place what safeguards we can against the use of drones in our city. It is time for us to call on our City Council to join Charlottesville and make Pittsburgh a no-drone city.

“The Obama administration’s unapologetic rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens sends a clear and urgent message about the need to limit the government’s use of these devices domestically. We cannot afford to be lulled into a sense of complacency by legislation placing temporary moratoriums on drones. As with other weapons of war which have become routine weapons of compliance domestically, such as tasers and sound cannons, once drones are unleashed on the American people, there will be no limiting their use by government agencies.”

–John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute


Scilla Wahrhaftig is the Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee PA program.


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