Houston Chronicle

Even before the global war on terrorism began in earnest on Sept. 11, 2001, the debate over where to draw the line between the need to accommodate national security interests while maintaining the traditional right to personal privacy was in full voice. Security v. Privacy: Where was the balance going to be found?

With the use of drones over Texas ("Privacy concerns soar with drones," Page A1, Friday), that question has come close to home. U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, held a congressional hearing in Houston last week to take the public pulse.

One of the best explanations of public sentiment probably came from Melvin Franklin, a lieutenant in the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office: "It's uncharted territory," the lieutenant testified, "and we want to make sure we're doing this the right way and the legal way."

We do. But what does that mean in everyday terms, especially in Houston? This area is the hub of the nation's oil and petrochemical businesses and a spaghetti bowl of pipelines - a ripe target for terrorists that must be well defended. Those industries see the drones as an effective, economical means to protect their assets.

On the other hand, left unchecked, that same surveillance capability could be used to intrude on the private lives of ordinary citizens in ways that rightly alarm civil libertarians.

Poe, a former state district criminal court judge in Harris County, framed the issue thoughtfully: "With the increased technology of surveillance," Poe said, "we must be proactive in establishing guidelines and limitations in drone surveillance by law enforcement and other private citizens."

Public hearings are the first step in what must be a careful process to manage the use of drones in a way that maximizes both security and personal privacy. It's a tall order.