US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has voiced concerns that, without sufficient protections, the age of unmanned drones and ubiquitous surveillance will usher in an “Orwellian world.”
Sotomayor told faculty and students at Oklahoma City University last week that technological capabilities allow devices to monitor “your conversations from miles away and through your walls.”
“We are in that brave new world, and we are capable of being in that Orwellian world, too,” she added, in a nod to George Orwell’s seminal authoritarian-dystopia novel ‘1984.’
Sotomayor also discussed the rise of drone use in wider society.
“There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property,” Sotomayor said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom. Because people think that it should be protected just against government intrusion, but I don’t like the fact that someone I don’t know…can pick up, if they’re a private citizen, one of these drones and fly it over my property.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is currently compiling rules and protocol to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into American skies, as commercial interests the likes of Amazon and Google are pressing for increased access to airspace.
The FAA forecasts there will be around 7,500 active unmanned systems moving through US skies in five years, with over $89 billion invested in drone technologies worldwide over the next decade. Drones range from radio-controlled model airplanes to those with the wingspan of a commercial airliner.
The Obama-appointed justice’s remarks come at a time when California is considering a proposal to become the eleventh state to require law enforcement – a major sector for potential drone usage – to obtain a court warrant before using an unmanned vessel for surveillance.
Though the California bill, approved by the state’s legislative bodies and now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, allows authorities plenty of exceptions to fly drones, including emergency situations, search-and-rescue efforts, traffic first responders and inspection of wildfires, to name a handful.
The US Supreme Court’s recent track record on protections against surveillance, either via drones or other technological means, has been mixed, to be generous.
In June, despite the wishes of the Obama administration and prosecutors across the country, SCOTUS ruled that police officers must have a warrant before searching the cell phone contents of an individual under arrest.
In January 2012, the high court overruled an Obama administration assertion that police should be permitted to affix a GPS device to a personal vehicle without a search warrant. Questions were left, however, when the court declined to answer whether that type of search was unreasonable and when justices could not reach a consensus on how police would need to monitor a suspect before requesting a warrant.
Missing from Sotomayor’s comments last week – and from the Supreme Court’s docket altogether – was the US government’s global surveillance regime operated by the National Security Agency, revealed through leaks supplied by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
In April, the Court denied a petition by the plaintiff in a court case – Klayman v. Obama – challenging the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program that requested the court take the case before lower courts had ruled.
The case now stands at the the federal appellate level after Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia initially ruled, in December 2013, against the government, calling the metadata program unconstitutional and “almost Orwellian” in nature.
“Because the government can use daily metadata collection to engage in ‘repetitive, surreptitious surveillance of a citizen’s private goings on,’ the NSA database ‘implicated the Fourth Amendment each time a government official monitors it,” Leon wrote.
The Supreme Court also rejected a separate challenge to the NSA’s dragnet telephone surveillance program in November 2013.
Just months after the NSA spying documents were first leaked, Justice Elena Kagan, the youngest presiding justice on the Supreme Court, suggested that the members of the bench were out of touch with modern technology and could not grasp the lightning-fast advances in surveillance capabilities.
“The justices are not necessarily the most technologically sophisticated people,” she said in August 2013 at a public discussion when asked about the NSA. “The court hasn’t really ‘gotten to’ email.”
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