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With FBI’s drone admission, now is the time for the debate on domestic surveillance

The rate at which technology is crowding in on American privacy is not only breathtaking, but almost certainly not fully comprehended. Calling and emailing are no longer private. Advertisers know what we want almost before we do. What is private, we give away via Facebook, GPS, E-ZPass and online shopping. Now the FBI, apparently without oversight, is using drones.

As with other government efforts to track once-private activities, the problem isn’t that law enforcement might use drones; it does and, in fact, it should. And what’s more, it’s inevitable. Advancing technology has its own imperative and it should be harnessed to the task of keeping communities safe. It’s not the use of the technology that is the issue, it’s the harnessing.

In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, outgoing FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III not only acknowledged that his agency has used unmanned drones for surveillance in the United States but, thankfully, also took the next step, which was to suggest that the government needs to develop guidelines for their use, which will only grow.

It was a wise move on his part, because the demand for controls would have been even louder if the revelation had been made via the kind of leak that disclosed the government’s monitoring of emails and phone calls as part of its anti-terror efforts. As it was, critics were quick to pounce.

“I think it’s something that the FBI has started to use these drones without any clear policy to protect our privacy,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Now we have cheap, easily accessible technology to allow law enforcement to spy on us. Law enforcement should only use these drones if they have probable cause.”

That’s a good place to start, especially if their use would otherwise violate a reasonable expectation of privacy. What Americans don’t need is the FBI, or any law enforcement agency, spying on backyard swimming pools and cookouts and bedroom windows. Such uses should require a warrant based on probable cause.

In other instances – looking for a vehicle wanted in a kidnapping, for example – it would be reasonable to expect law enforcement to use all practical resources, including drones, to respond to a crime in progress.

Americans, we suspect, don’t know half the ways that they are being monitored, whether by government, merchants, advertisers or others who are capable of following their footprints, electronic or literal. In truth, most of us probably never will know.

But when it comes to government – and especially law enforcement – Americans need to know that there are rules in place to limit that tracking to areas that are legitimately needed and that those instances are subject to regulation and oversight.

That’s already true of searches, seizures, wiretaps and other forms of monitoring. It needs to be true of drones, as well. This is a discussion to have now.