For Americans concerned about personal privacy, it's time to wake up. Americans are far too blasť at a time when we're being bombarded by an ever-growing array of high-tech surveillance techniques.
I'm neither a black helicopter conspiracist nor a member of the ACLU, but anyone who's not a little paranoid is not keeping up. (I know that saying that makes me a fuddy-duddy, because the younger generation seems to have bought the argument from the wizards of smart in Silicon Valley that privacy is an out-dated concept.)
I hadn't been keeping up myself until I read about how the police chief in neighboring Dayton, Ohio, wants to spend $120,000 to use a small plane flying at 9,000 feet with high-definition cameras to survey areas of the city that have high crime rates or to track crimes in progress.
Curiosity led me to a public hearing on the proposal, attended by more than 50 people - most of them opponents or openly skeptical - and I was mildly surprised when the first pitch for the program from city officials was not about law enforcement, but about the jobs it would create.
This aspect of a modest pilot program involving one small plane thus offered a window to the bigger picture: At the same time that Congress and dozens of state legislatures are considering a hodge-podge of legislation to put limits on what may be as many as 30,000 civilian drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) in this country by the year 2020, states and communities (including Ohio and the Dayton area) are competing for federal designation as sites to test these drones and to attract companies that would produce them.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that drones will be a $90 billion-plus industry in the next few years and a trade group for the industry projects the creation of more than 100,000 jobs by 2025.
So this is the argument that privacy advocates are up against: Sure, your privacy should be respected as much as possible, but who on earth can oppose an evolving industry that promises so many high-tech jobs?
Besides, legal doctrine long has held that you have no expectation of privacy in a public place. Whether you're walking down the street in Manhattan, Kan., or Manhattan, N.Y., you have no right to expect that your picture won't be taken by a camera mounted on a light pole or by someone wielding a smart phone.
The accompanying, tired old argument is that if you're not doing anything wrong, why should you care if someone is taking your picture?
But you shouldn't have to hide in your house with the curtains pulled in order to escape electronic snoopers. Not that even that will guarantee your privacy, as the recent case with Google's Street View program demonstrated. While Google's cameras were taking all those panoramic pictures of the houses on your street, they were also capturing un-encrypted emails and text messages from private Wi-Fi hotspots. (Google was fined a laughable $7 million. A fine of $700 million would have been more appropriate - see if that got their attention.)
It boils down to this: when you read or sunbathe in your backyard, which, in my case, is enclosed by a six-foot wood fence, you're looking for peace and quiet - and privacy. You don't expect a drone to hover overhead like a dragonfly, fulfilling someone's voyeuristic cravings. If you wanted to be observed, you'd move your lounge chair to the front yard.
But the prospect of drones over neighborhoods across the country is very real, and only a few local jurisdictions are taking it seriously. The Seattle police department recently nixed the use of two drones after a public outcry. The Charlottesville, Va., city council voted to restrict police use of drones in criminal investigations, while permitting them for search and rescue operations.
And who can object to the latter: drones also can be both efficient and effective in monitoring wildfires or earthquake damage or the effect of weather on farmland. But when they're used for collecting personal data or targeted police surveillance without a court's sanction, we have reason to worry.
To me, the Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure are second in importance only to the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. If our skies become filled with swarms of drones during the next few years, we're going to find out if the courts agree.