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CRS: Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative Responses

Author: Richard M. Thompson II
September 6, 2012


Richard M. Thompson II assesses the use of drones under the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft that can fly without an onboard human operator. An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is the entire system, including the aircraft, digital network, and personnel on the ground. Drones can fly either by remote control or on a predetermined flight path; can be as small as an insect and as large as a traditional jet; can be produced more cheaply than traditional aircraft; and can keep operators out of harm's way. These unmanned aircraft are most commonly known for their operations overseas in tracking down and killing suspected members of Al Qaeda and related organizations. In addition to these missions abroad, drones are being considered for use in domestic surveillance operations, which might include in furtherance of homeland security, crime fighting, disaster relief, immigration control, and environmental monitoring.

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