It’s not unusual for some nifty new technology to come with both beneficial uses and more sinister applications. That’s what many people are coming to see with the unmanned aerial vehicles commonly called drones.

While drones are best known for providing our troops with a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield and blasting suspected terrorists in the Middle East, civilian drones are finding work here at home.

Drones can be used by scientists to photograph and measure things that previously required boots-on-the-ground investigations. In agricultural applications, researchers are using drones to study invasive species on public rangelands. They have the potential of helping farmers monitor the progress of crops, record field conditions and track the advance of pests.

While there’s no evidence of widespread use of drones by regulatory agencies, there is growing concern among ag interests and civil libertarians that their enhanced capabilities and their relative low cost will lead to more extensive and pervasive regulatory surveillance.

Before that happens, Congress needs to set rules that will protect Americans from warrantless snooping.

A Congressional Research Service report says future generations of drones will be equipped with thermal imaging and radar systems that will let them “see” through walls. Armed with high-altitude cameras, drones able to stay aloft for days at a time could record all manner of activity over a wide swath of private property.

Trevor Timm is an attorney and activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy and free-speech group that has been leery of how law enforcement and regulators might use this technology as it becomes more sophisticated. He said their use should be subject to a higher legal standard.

“People rightly recoil when they think about drones flying overhead 24/7,” he said. “In our view, that’s an infringement of people’s liberty, whether you’re walking down the street or own a farm.”

Proponents of the use of drones in regulatory enforcement note that agents in conventional aircraft are free to make warrantless flights over farms, factories and other private property looking for violations, or anything else of interest.

But for the most part, the expense of conventional flights limits their use to cases where regulators have a reasonable suspicion. And so far, they don’t see through walls.

But the technology is changing, and it’s time for the rules to catch up. Citizens are right to be concerned about any expansion of aerial snooping, especially into their lawful, private activities.

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