Domestic Drone Bills Seek To Protect Privacy Rights

The Drones Are Coming Home

State legislatures nationwide are looking at measures to restrict the use of drones domestically, as privacy and ethical concerns mount among the public about the use of the unmanned vehicles.

The specter of drones surreptitiously hovering over American cities and neighborhoods has not sat well with many state legislators, who fear the technology may open the door to violations of the Fourth Amendment. In 39 state legislatures, 85 bills and resolutions have been proposed to set parameters on the uses of drones. Three states have already passed legislation to restrict their use completely or to limit their use to narrow purposes.

State and local legislators are considering a range of bills: some seek to establish commissions to study the effects of drone use; other legislatures -- like those in Montana and Missouri -- are proposing a requirement on law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before using a drone to surveil citizens. The preemptive debate nationwide is being driven by a wariness of the unknown future capabilities of drones to impinge, potentially, on constitutional rights.

"If drones are going to find a place in American life and commerce, then the privacy questions are going to need to be put to rest," Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU, told The Huffington Post.

In February, Charlottesville, Va., became the first city government in the nation to make its city a no-drone zone. Subsequently, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.) signed legislation in April that placed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones throughout the state, allowing for exceptions in the case of emergencies and for military training purposes.

"Our argument was, 'Wait a minute, you know, no one that wrote the Fourth Amendment envisioned a drone parked over your backyard, able to sniff and look and send signals back to home base,'" said state Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), the moratorium's sponsor. "We need to come up with a 21st-century approach to when these things can be used and when they can't be used."

Little more than a week later, Idaho passed a bill that requires state law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones to collect evidence. Allie Bohm, policy strategist at the ACLU, said the legislation would protect "individuals from unfettered surveillance."

"We're trying to prevent high-tech window-peeping," Idaho Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder (R), the bill's sponsor, told Reuters while the bill was pending.

Idaho's drone statute is an example of the type of limitations currently being debated in a number of state legislatures, and is similar to a bill that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed into law last week.

"The bill is the right thing to do, because the idea of drones spying on law-abiding citizens is inconsistent with the American experience," state Sen. Rob Bradley (R), co-sponsor of the Florida legislation, told The Huffington Post.

Florida's drone bill, which also carries a warrant requirement for law enforcement, passed the state House and Senate unanimously.

"The issue really crosses party lines. It's the one issue that unites hippies and survivalists," Bradley said. "It's amazing that the left and right can come to agreement on this."

In Virginia, McEachin also marveled at the broad support for the drone moratorium. "This is a unique situation where the Tea Party and the ACLU are on the same side," he told The Huffington Post. "It was a unique situation where the Republican right and the Democratic left agreed on something. It's a pretty interesting group of people who are interested in this issue."

Still, industry insiders argue that widespread suspicion of domestic drones is completely unfounded.

"The fear that other groups have put into legislators -- that they're going to be watching and spying on you -- is a bit far stretched," said Mario Mairena, a spokesman for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone advocacy organization.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of folks scaring state legislators and the community about unmanned aircraft systems," Mairena told HuffPost. "This is not revolutionary technology."

According to Steve Gitlin, spokesman for AeroVironment -- a leading drone manufacturer and defense industry contractor -- drones are "absolutely" capable of being used in situations and environments prohibitive to other, manned aircraft, such as helicopters.

In an urban setting, for example, law enforcement could deploy drones "much more readily where there are buildings and homes and everything around there than you could with a helicopter, just because [a drone is] so much smaller and lighter and quieter," Gitlin told The Huffington Post.

It is the rapidly expanding capabilities of drones that have civil libertarians alarmed.

"It's very real, the technology is real. It's happening, and the privacy threats are very real," Stanley told The Huffington Post.

In Florida, Bradley said their drone bill was needed to get "ahead of the curve."

In some sense, the state and local debates over the acceptable scope of drone use are not as significant as the passion and bipartisan unanimity might suggest. In 2012, Congress mandated that the FAA prepare for the safe integration of drones into domestic airspace by 2015. So while states and localities can restrict where, on whose orders and for what purposes drones can fly, the regulation of American airspace is ultimately up to the FAA.

Currently, the FAA is accepting applications for six test sites where drones will be flown in a controlled environment, in order to develop a plan for their safe integration by the 2015 deadline. Depending on the results from the test sites, an FAA spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency estimates that 7,500 commercial drones could be flying domestic skies by 2018.

More than likely, the thousands of airborne vehicles will not be under the control of law enforcement. Even legislators who are working to limit the government's use of drones concede that the technology has other, less sinister uses -- Bradley among them. "There are appropriate applications domestically, for agriculture and surveying lands," he told HuffPost, "but when drones are used to spy on law abiding citizens there is a certain creepiness to that."

Most observers agree that drones can have myriad private applications, apart from law enforcement, and can have a positive economic impact. One industry report, published in March by AUVSI, projects that drone manufacturing will create 100,000 jobs and an "economic impact of $82 billion," by 2025.

"There's a whole host of things that drones can do," said the ACLU's Bohm. "And we want to enjoy the benefits of this technology without becoming a surveillance society."

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