Ohio drones spark safety vs. privacy debate

12:46 AM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- Surveillance and infrared cameras were keys to quickly spotting the Boston bombing suspects. Technology used for good, helped return security to a terrorized city.

But the pictures offer a reminder of how often we are watched. Are we sacrificing privacy for safety? It is a timely debate right here in Ohio.

New surveillance technology, in the form of domestic drones, is taking flight amid fears that it could go too far.

They are not the remote-control predator drones used to target and kill suspected terrorists abroad. These domestic drones are un-armed and a far cry from their military cousins.

But they are gaining popularity by police agencies across the country for what they can do: shoot real-time video and pick up body heat to locate people from above.

Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller has been leading the way to get a drone program off the ground. A drone his department is testing was donated as part of a pilot program to learn how it could be used by first responders.

"Let's say it's a moving shooter, somebody that's in the open, behind a barn. We could look ahead of there before inserting our teams and keep them safer, not to mention the public," Sheriff Miller explains.

The Medina County Sheriff's Department is one of five entities in Ohio authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration for limited drone use. Others include Ohio University, Lorain County Community College, Sinclair Community College near Dayton, and the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Miller also sees the drone as an excellent tool in missing person searches.

"Every year a couple of kids go missing in wooded areas. It can get up above the tree lines and, if there's a leaf cover, we can use the infrared and pick up a figure or a person in there and get to that person much sooner than we would through ordinary efforts of walking it or using canines," Miller said.

But as is often the case with progress, there are potential pitfalls too.

Surveillance technology has developed so rapidly that privacy laws have not kept up. Privacy laws have been tested in the past, with lawsuits over images from Google maps.

And now there are more questions and concerns about the recording capability of Google Glasses, set to go on sale to the public later this year.

"There's an expectation of privacy of individuals involved in not doing anything wrong. You and I walking down the street have a reasonable expectation of privacy," said Melissa Bilancini, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

"What we really want to do is ensure that policy created today will stand the test of technology," Bilancini added.

Miller says his department will not launch its drone until he can ensure people's right to privacy is protected.

"I don't want one flying over my backyard any more than anybody else does. And we are going to follow the guidelines of the Constitution of the United States, the guidelines of the State of Ohio. We will use a search warrant if and when appropriate."

But with the number of drones flying in national airspace expected to soar within the next few years, it is clear why drone debaters want resolution now, in the calm before the swarm.  


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