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Intelligent Machines

The Trump Administration May Soon Have New Powers to Destroy Drone “Threats”

Officials say it shouldn’t be illegal for the government to track and shoot down drones it deems threatening.

If the Trump administration gets its way, the government will soon have the authority to hack into an unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace to determine if it is a security threat—and to take it down if necessary.

In a draft legislative proposal obtained by the New York Times, administration officials argue that new legislation is needed because drones were “unforeseen” when existing laws against unauthorized hacking and surveillance, and which protect civil aircraft, were passed. “Potential liability under such laws restricts innovation, evaluation, and operational use of technical countermeasures that can address the unique public safety and homeland security threats posed by UAS [unmanned aerial systems],” they write.

Small consumer and commercial drones are getting cheaper and more sophisticated (see “Now You Can Finally Use Your Drone to Make Money”), so it makes sense that the government is concerned about the safety risks they pose. That includes the danger of errant drones, like the one that crash-landed on the White House lawn in 2015, as well as the threat that they could be weaponized. In February, the Washington Post reported that Islamic State fighters are engaged in a “rapidly accelerating campaign of armed drone strikes” in northern Iraq. In 2011, a man from Massachusetts was accused of plotting to strike the Pentagon and the Capitol using small drones carrying bombs.

The proposed law is vague on what agency or officials would be doing the hacking, tracking, and removal of drones from the sky, and how they would do it. There are a number of anti-drone systems already commercially available. Those techniques “may be construed to be illegal” in the absence of new legislation, the proposal’s authors write. According to a leaked draft and summary of the proposal, it is under consideration as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress must pass every year to authorize the Defense Department’s budget. 

It’s been clear for years that drones bring with them new regulatory challenges that might require new laws. Just last week, a federal court ruled that the FAA does not have the authority to make consumers register their drones with the government, a measure that even many in the drone industry see as important for maintaining safe skies. Besides safety concerns, drones also raise new privacy-related questions, and this is another area where the authors of the new proposal remained vague. The legislation would require the new policy to “respect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” they write, but they also state that no court would have jurisdiction to hear lawsuits brought as a result of enforcing the law.

Though there is clearly a lot that still needs ironing out, the Trump administration appears serious about rewriting the laws to address what it sees as a new threat from the sky. Now it will need Congress to play ball.

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