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The NSA's Biggest Supporter Is Worried About Drone Privacy Issues

It's hard to reconcile why Dianne Feinstein is so pro-NSA yet so anti-drone.
Image: Sen. Christopher Coons's site

Turns our California Sen. Dianne Feinstein isn’t always in favor of more government power when it comes to surveillance.

At a Senate hearing Wednesday discussing the future of drones in the United States, Feinstein said the “unique capabilities of the drone bring with it significant risks, most notably related to privacy and public safety.”

To illustrate her point, Feinstein said that she had been a victim of drone surveillance during a protest at her house. “I have seen firsthand their surveillance capability. There was a demonstration in front of my house, so I went to the window to peek out and see who was there, and there was a drone right there in the window looking at me,” she said. “Obviously, the pilot was surprised because the drone wheeled around and crashed. But what kind of camera was on it? Could an enterprising person have put a firearm on it?”

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What the protesters were there for is unclear, though CodePink staged a protest at her home last year over, guess what, drone strikes in the Middle East. No one’s suggesting that Feinstein should have been happy about the fact that there was a drone hanging out outside her window, but her comments Wednesday were particularly rich coming from someone who recently wrote a bill that the ACLU called a “dream come true for the NSA.”

That bill, the FISA Improvement Act, would have expressly allowed the NSA to monitor phone, email, and Internet data without a warrant. The NSA already does some of those activities, but the FISA Improvement Act would have strengthened its legal footing to do so. The bill would have also allowed the government to spy on foreign visitors for up to 72 hours without a warrant.

Feinstein recently said that she doesn’t consider NSA monitoring of telephone calls to be “indispensable,” but would like to see it continued anyway.

“I’m saying it is important, and it is a major tool in ferreting out a potential terrorist attack,” she told MSNBC last month. Earlier last year, she said that ending or curtailing NSA surveillance “would place the nation in jeopardy.”

Like many lawmakers, Feinstein is attempting to find a middle ground on the domestic implementation of drones. She recognizes the potential economic benefits of them while weighing their downsides, such as their safety issues and the potential for them to be abused. But where she falls on both issues carries more weight than other lawmakers' positions: Feinstein is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the group tasked with legislating this kind of thing.

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And it appears that she feels as though surveillance of Americans is warranted and important as long as it happens electronically and not aerially.

At Wednesday’s hearing she said she’s in favor of requiring a search warrant in order for law enforcement to operate a drone and said there should be “strong, binding, enforceable [laws] done before the technology is upon us.” She said “we need strong privacy protections for government use.” Is it because it’s obvious when a drone is filming you mere feet away from your face, while seamless NSA wiretapping and FBI monitoring of webcams is invisible?

Or, is there some sort of disconnect about what the technologies will primarily be used for? Feinstein has repeatedly said that drones are a far bigger threat to privacy than electronic wiretapping. Is that because, stereotypically, drones are used by perverts to film people undressing in their homes while wiretapping is used to stop terrorists?

Privacy experts aren’t seeing the difference and were quick to point out Feinstein’s hypocrisy on Twitter, led by Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center:

DiFi says there are significant privacy concerns related to the widespread use of drones for surveillance #droneprivacy

— Amie Stepanovich (@astepanovich) January 15, 2014

Yes, she really said that. DiFi is against widespread, untargeted surveillance [with drones]

— Amie Stepanovich (@astepanovich) January 15, 2014

I really wish the DiFi that just testified at #droneprivacy hearing could be chair of the Senate Intel Committee…

— Amie Stepanovich (@astepanovich) January 15, 2014

The message is clear: If Sen. Feinstein is so concerned about privacy, why doesn't she do something about it?