Rep. Johnson Works to Protect Americans' Fundamental Rights to Privacy

By:  Hank Johnson, Jr.
Date: Oct. 25, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

On Thursday, Congressman Hank Johnson participated in a bipartisan House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee Field Forum on the domestic use of drones.

The Forum took place in the Shell Auditorium at Rice University. Other Members of Congress including Congressman Michael McCaul (TX-10), Congresswoman Sandy Adams (FL-24) and host Congressman Ted Poe (TX-02) listened to witness testimony and asked questions about domestic drones.

The policy forum, titled "Domestic Drones: What are the limits?" brought together experts in the field to educate Members of Congress and the community on the implications of the increased use of drones in the United States.

Rep. Johnson said everyone should be aware that the use of drones could be coming to Georgia soon, and Fourth Amendment privacy protection rights should be part of the debate.

"It's possible that within a decade, more than 30,000 drones could be flying in American skies," said Johnson. "Congress must balance citizens' Fourth Amendment rights of privacy with security and safety concerns. Now is the time to establish guidelines on when and for what purposes law enforcement agencies, private citizens and businesses can use drones domestically. I look forward to working with my colleagues -- both Republicans and Democrats -- on this important issue."

Congressman Henry C. "Hank" Johnson, Jr. | Field Forum on the Domestic Use of Drones | October 25, 2012 | Prepared remarks

Representative Poe, I thank you for holding this very important forum on how the domestic use of drone technology impacts the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans.

We are not a Nation of suspects. The Framers intended to prohibit wide-ranging exploratory searches through the Fourth Amendment. This is why warrants must be carefully tailored to their justifications, and also why we don't allow law enforcement to use general warrants to ransack houses, papers, and effects in the name of safety.

Courts have long held that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unlawful searches was not protection against self-incrimination.

It was the common-law right to privacy, a right that is indispensable, and essential to our concept of a free and unfettered society.

And yet in the age we live in, law enforcement has powerful tools to lawfully track a person without a warrant. New technologies allow police to easily glean a person's location, communications or other personal data from their mobile device.

Meanwhile, drones are becoming smaller, cameras more powerful, and facial-recognition software more advanced.

As the number of drones rises, so too will the number of suspects. These suspects could be lawful demonstrators or a person lawfully driving along a highway within twenty miles of the border.

Constant surveillance of Americans' movements outside of the home can display many of the intimate details of their life. Persistently monitoring Americans' movements can reveal their political identity, their religious views, or even the well-being of their marriage.

But some harms of surveillance are more subtle than others. Surveillance forces individuals to adjust their behavior. People behave differently when they are being watched--they often censor their own speech or they curtail their self-expression in an effort to conform to Big Brother's perspective. People will do this when they believe they are being watched, regardless of whether surveillance is actually occurring.

These subtle harms strike to the core of our beliefs.

Where would we be as a society if people were afraid to challenge policies because they knew every movement was observed and every word recorded?

During the civil rights movement, would activists have left their homes if they knew that a camera located 30,000 feet above them would watch as they traveled to a protest or speech? And would the founders have met to sign the Declaration of Independence if they saw small drones circling overhead?

We do not know. But we can look to closed societies where law enforcement tracks citizens through spyware and other online surveillance tools, where fundamental rights like the freedom to assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are endangered or non-existent.

We must not allow unmanned aerial surveillance to become a tool for mass surveillance or oppression.

When it comes to preventing a terrorist attack or securing the border, there are a number of positive uses of drones.

But we can all agree that American citizens are not akin to enemy combatants on a foreign battlefield, or drug traffickers along the border.

Indeed, both parties cast a skeptical eye toward drone surveillance in law enforcement, as evidenced by Representative Poe's legislation on this matter.

As new surveillance technologies like drones proliferate, we must also be watchful and safeguard our most fundamental rights.