January 31, 2013
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Drones are wildly popular on the battlefield. Now they can claim victory elsewhere. The use of drones within U.S. borders — in car chases, to monitor wildfires, or for simple surveillance — is uniting political parties and people more often at odds.
Their concern: the widespread use of drones among civilians represents a deep and dangerous intrusion into American life.
“What we used to know as privacy is finished,” said John Whitehead, a constitutional scholar and president of Virginia-based Rutherford Institute. “Big Brother is here to stay.”
Both the progressive American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Rutherford Institute cheer legislative efforts to place strict limits on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. And, prodded by privacy groups, state lawmakers nationwide — Republicans and Democrats alike — have launched an all-out offensive against the unmanned aerial vehicles.
And to think, only the prospect of complete upheaval of America’s strong tradition of privacy rights spurs bipartisanship.
In at least 13 states, lawmakers this year will examine bills to place strict limits on how government entities can deploy drones. No state has embedded such regulations into law.
Drones are already everywhere — executing search-and-rescue missions, tracking cattle rustlers or monitoring wildfires with minimal cost and little risk of loss of life.
The Federal Aviation Administration listed 345 active drone licenses as of November 2012. Congress has directed the federal department to streamline the approval process. Starting in 2015, commercial entities — think entertainment news outlet TMZ — will have easy access to drone permits.
Analysts believe as many as 30,000 drones will populate American skies by 2020.
Canyon County, Idaho, already has one, a camera-equipped Draganflyer X-6 it bought for $33,400 with federal grant money. About a year ago, Mesa County, Colo., used $14,000 to purchase its drone, a 4-foot-long, 9-pound plane that can maintain flight for about an hour. The Seattle Police Department spent $41,000 in August for its Draganflyer X-6.
With the booming interest in the myriad uses of UAVs comes nervous anxiety about the creep of the surveillance state.
And that’s where state lawmakers and their allies come in.
The drone war begins
Early Tuesday, members of Montana’s Senate Judiciary Committee assembled in the Capitol in Helena to hear testimony on Senate Bill 150, a measure that would place tight restrictions on UAVs in the Treasure State. If passed, the law would prevent officials from using evidence obtained via drones and would block the state or local governments from owning weaponized UAVs. The law would allow victims of drone overreach to sue offending parties personally and professionally.
“The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions and abusive use of these tools in way that could eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities,” the bill’s author, Sen. Robyn Driscoll, a Democrat from Billings, testified.
While conceding that privacy rights are critical, the bill’s opponents say it would unnecessarily limit law enforcement.
“That’s technology that I don’t think should be absolutely banned,” said Larry Epstein, a lobbyist for the Montana Police Protective Association, the Montana County Attorneys Association and the Montana Association of Police Chiefs, three powerful interest groups ardently opposed to Driscoll’s bill.
Epstein said he worries that a provision the allowing victims of drone misuse to sue offenders personally and professionally is overly broad.
His solution, he said, is the Montana Constitution, which boasts strong language protecting privacy rights and already limits police overreach.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, also the head of the Montana Association of Police Chiefs, said Montana legislators are acting too swiftly on drones.
“At this point, it’s sort of putting the cart before the horse,” Muir warned, pointing out that no local law enforcement agencies in Montana own or deploy drones.
Muir, too, recognizes the concerns shown by privacy advocates.
“We understand the privacy issue at play with this technology and we are open to discussion on how it might be used,” he said.
Driscoll’s bill likely edges out others as the most forceful of the anti-drone legislation hitting state legislatures this year. Others, like Florida Republican State Sen. Joe Negron’s proposal, reveal similar values, but boast more exemptions.
Florida state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican, opposes certain drone uses in Florida.
Negron’s bill, initially approval by the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week, would prevent law enforcement agencies from using drones to collect evidence without first obtaining a warrant from a judge. Law enforcement agencies also could use drones to counter imminent terrorist attacks or prevent harm from coming to life or property under “particular circumstance.”
“Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn’t be hovering in the sky, monitoring Floridians,” Negron said, according to Florida’s WUFT. “That’s not something we believe is an appropriate role for government.”
Negron did not return a Watchdog.org call for comment.
United in opposition – sort of
“We believe we need a system of rules so people can use drone for legitimate purposes,” said Allie Bohm, a policy strategist in the ACLU New York office.
Bohm said there’s no coordinated game plan on the ACLU’s part to push anti-drone bills, but the organization stands at the ready to aid anyone’s effort to push the legislation.
“There’s been a lot of energy by lawmakers,” Bohm stressed.
Passage of these laws might come down to differing language of the Driscoll and Negron bills. Bohm and the ACLU, along with Epstein, agree that law enforcement officials should obtain judge-approved search warrants before deploying drones for criminal investigations, as allowed in Negron’s bill.
Bohm says drones can be useful for Americans, but governments nationwide should place strict limits on the unmanned crafts.
“That’s how the world of law enforcement works,” Epstein said. “We understand that.”
Bohm echoed that thought.
“I think we’re putting safeguards in place, but we’re not taking away anything law enforcement already has,” she said.
“Requiring a warrant is incredibly stupid,” barked Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. “It won’t work.”
Drones buzzing quietly overhead, Whitehead warned, will collect loads of information, including license plate numbers, wi-fi data and secret passwords. Equipped with right components, they’ll peak through walls, which he believes bypasses the need for warrants.
Whitehead spent the past two years researching drones, their past, present and, most importantly,their future. During his study, he authored model legislation that he sent to the 50 state legislatures. He said he’s very serious about restraining the surveillance state, though he knows it cannot be fully barred.
“There will be drones everywhere,” he said. “There’s too much money to be made.”