While millions of Americans have made peace with Google posting online pictures of their front doors, and having video cameras pointed at them in every coffee shop, workplace and public setting imaginable, the notion of camera-equipped drones buzzing overhead in nonmilitary settings is making many want to duck for cover.

At a recent U.S. House hearing that followed the federal government’s announcement of plans for six drone test sites, a Republican congressman, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, said citizens “are just frightened” about the use of drones and possible “invasions of their privacy and violations of their civil rights.”

The prospect that as many as 10,000 unmanned planes and helicopter-like surveillance devices could be launched into the nation’s skies in the coming years might have once been regarded as a science-fiction scenario. But no more.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sought the test-site proposals, has been working under a congressional directive to figure out how drones could be deployed safely above U.S. communities as soon as September, 2015.

The prospect of using drones on domestic shores — and not just for military purposes abroad in the war on terror — holds great promise, but also poses great challenges.

From an economic standpoint, there’s little doubt that thousands of well-paying jobs could be generated in aviation-related industries if domestic drone use for surveillance takes off.

As for drones’ possible uses, in the hands of civilian and law enforcement authorities, businesses and individuals, the relatively inexpensive gadgetry could aid in search-and-rescue missions, crime-fighting, commercial photography, land-use surveying and even news-gathering.

The challenges, though, are just as daunting, including the potential threat to safety in the air and on the ground, and the new privacy risks that could prove to be the tipping point toward a surveillance society.

Technological solutions, presumably, will solve the safety issue.

For instance, drones currently don’t have the ability to detect other aircraft nearby.

There are concerns, too, about assuring that the wireless link between their on-the-ground operators and drone devices cannot be broken or hacked.

It’s less clear, though, how communities will deal with the quantum leap in surveillance posed by drone flights. The FAA has called for comments on privacy concerns, and would require that test sites follow federal and state laws.

Meanwhile, much more thought needs to be given to whether existing privacy laws are adequate.

Some communities already are stepping up with moratoriums, outright bans on police using drones to gather criminal evidence or requirements that warrants be secured for certain drone flights.

All these concerns need to be worked out before federal authorities grant permission for domestic-drone flights.

And it would be best if these safeguards were developed at the federal level to assure uniform privacy protections.

Editorial by the Philadelphia Inquirer

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