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Bruce Squires, Published February 08 2012

Drones, cameras violate our 4th Amendment rights

Recently, The Forum reported via a front-page story how the Fargo Police Department is considering the installation of security cameras near businesses downtown along Broadway.

There was also a recent news article about where a Predator drone, more commonly used by the CIA to hunt and assassinate terrorists, was used to track down a North Dakota family who allegedly stole three cows that wandered onto their farmland earlier this year. The family was arrested after the drone helped detectives spy on them. The family becomes the first known American citizens to be victims of Predator drones, which the government has made available to local sheriffs and police chiefs.

Legislation pending in Congress, H.R. 658, would allow for expansion of the use of drones, while the U.S. Army also recently issued a new directive to govern the growing use of unmanned aircraft systems or “drones” within the United States for training missions and for “domestic operations.” One does wonder what “domestic operations” means?

In 1949, George Orwell wrote a novel titled “1984.” The story depicts an imaginary future where a totalitarian state controls every aspect of life, even people’s thoughts. The state is called Oceania and is ruled by a group known as the Party; its leader and dictator is Big Brother. Posters of the party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” adorn the landscape, while the ubiquitous telescreen, a transceiving television set, monitors the private and public lives of the populace. “1984” popularized the adjective Orwellian, which refers to official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past in service to a totalitarian or manipulative political agenda.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently found that surveillance is comparable to a search and that it therefore ordinarily requires the subject’s consent or a valid warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court has also determined that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment protects a personal right to privacy that is even broader than what is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

Unfortunately, recent well-meaning but imperfect legislation, including the Patriot Act, has eroded the protection offered citizens by these constitutional amendments.

Ben Franklin once said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.”

Are the use of surveillance cameras, Predator drones and who knows what else to monitor or spy upon the activities of law-abiding citizens a violation of our Fourth and 14th Amendment rights? I suspect that Franklin and Orwell would think so.