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March 25, 2013

America's coming surveillance society

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently filibustered the confirmation of John Brennan for Central Intelligence Agency director over the fine points of drone use on American citizens.

He stood before the Senate for 13 hours to protest the fact that the government said it could under "extraordinary circumstances" strike an American citizen labeled an enemy combatant on U.S. soil.

Many ridiculed him for arguing about something that will never happen.

Maybe it won't. But in highlighting what is likely an obscure event and getting a ton of media coverage in the process, Rand, a Republican, launched what I hope is the opening salvo of a much bigger debate about the loss of civil liberties in the country.

The issue of drones, in particular, is a great place to start the discussion. Once used primarily to assist U.S. troops overseas in killing enemy fighters and to patrol the U.S. border, they are now being used to surveil U.S. citizens throughout the country.

In one of the first public instances of the federal government lending drones to local law enforcement agencies, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) let the Grand Forks, N.D., police and the sheriff's office borrow a multimillion dollar Predator in 2011 to monitor a farmer accused of not returning cows worth $6,000 to a neighbor.

If something so financially trivial prompts government into using drones, what does it say about the ubiquity of their future use?

Today, DHS is not only lending drones to local agencies but distributing grants to them so that they can buy their own without an official policy in place to guide how and when they can be used. Congress, however, has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change airspace rules to make it easier for local police and other organizations to use them.

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