The use of unmanned military drones by domestic US law enforcement is described in this Washington Post article (check out the video footage of the drones). Current use is small and appears to be limited to border surveillance, high risk tactical situations and public crowd surveillance where safety is a concern. Given how cheap the technology is, requests for drones will certainly increase.
The danger is in mission creep. With clear guidelines and transparency, drones can certainly increase public safety and reduce the risk of injury to law enforcement officers in dangerous situations (or, when no danger is detected, reduce the risk to suspects and bystanders). But it will be tempting by law enforcement to use drones on a wider basis. A reasonable sounding can be put together for most situations, but as the article points out, how will Americans feel when drones are constantly hovering over their homes, places of business, places of worship and congregation. What is defined as “high risk” can be a matter of opinion (hence the need for better metrics in this and many other fields).
We should not shy away from the use of technologies just because they run the risk of invading our privacy. Attempts to turn back the clock on technology have always failed. There should be a public discussion in our homes, schools, civic organizations and legislatures on the role of this and related technologies in enhancing public safety. We can come up with reasonable guidelines that balance privacy and safety.
As Schnier always stays, it’s not privacy v. security, but instead liberty v. control.