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Drones are cheaper and more powerful. In US, that's a problem, lawmakers told

Police departments are increasingly interested in deploying drones, a House subcommittee is told. As drones proliferate, so too does the 'specter of routine aerial surveillance in American life.'

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In this file photo, Seattle Police officer Jim Britt demonstrates an unmanned aerial vehicle during at a meeting where the police answered questions about their drone program in Seattle, Wash.

Colin Diltz, The Seattle Times/AP/File

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With much of Capitol Hill riveted by IRS audits, AP phone records, and Benghazi e-mails, top US scholars gathered to testify in a little-watched congressional hearing Friday about the growing threat the use of drones in US airspace may pose to civil liberties.

They warned that unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the specter of a “significant new avenue for surveillance of American life,” as Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, characterized it for lawmakers Friday.

“Many Americans are familiar with these aircraft – commonly called drones – because of their use overseas in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. But drones are coming to America,” he said.

Recent legislation requires the Federal Aviation Administration to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

At the same time, the technology “is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful,” which has accelerated interest in deploying drones among police departments, Mr. Calabrese pointed out in testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.

The problem, he warned, is that “our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with constitutional values.”

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